Monday, 29 October 2012

chocolate fondant

I am once again left with egg yolks going spare from the egg white cookies of yesterday.  Readers may recall the option I took the last time I was faced with this predicament – crème brûlée   This time, I’m going with chocolate fondants.

These are bleedin’ excellent.  They’re incredibly easy to make, very difficult to mess up, and look the business. Is there anyone in the world that doesn’t love a gooey middle? What’s even better is they're perfect make ahead desserts.  They can be popped into the freezer after being made up and cooked in the oven straight from frozen.  Excellent if you want to get ahead for some dinner party planning.  But even better than that – simply knowing you have them in stock for when you’re hankering for some sin.

Chocolate fondant

I challenge anyone to resist them.

45 mins prep plus 15 minutes cooking

Makes 4

Some melted butter for brushing
Cocoa powder for dusting
100g good quality dark chocolate
100g butter
100g golden caster sugar
2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks
100g plain flour

Tip I find the Stork available in the plastic tubs are perfect for cake making – it’s already soft so it's great for brushing.  If you’re making pastry, that’s when you want cold hard butter bought in blocks.  Not what we want this time.

You first need to get your moulds ready.  Get four standard sized ramekins and coat the whole of the insides with butter.  I tend to use a clean kitchen towel for this.  Then pop in the freezer.  After they’ve all been given a coat, get them out and give them another coat of butter.

Now coat the insides with cocoa powder.  The best way to do this is tip a load into a ramekin, hold it so it’s almost on it’s side, then rotate the ramekin so all of the sides are coated in the powder.  You don’t want to leave any part uncovered.  Do this over your pot of cocoa powder so any that falls out falls back into the pot – no need for waste.  This preparation ensures they’re easy to get out once cooked.

Melt the chocolate and butter.  Recipes always tell you to do this over a bowl of simmering water – I see this effort as unnecessary.  Put the chocolate and butter in a bowl and microwave for a few seconds at a time – give it a good stir each time you check it.  As long as you don’t over heat it, this is a much quicker way of melting chocolate.  The risk here is that if you leave it in too long, the chocolate will overheat and split – so keep an eye on it.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar together for a good 10 minutes until they’re thick and pale and the whisk leaves a trail.  I would recommend using an electric device for this.  

Sift the flour into the eggs, then beat together with a wooden spoon or with the beater attachment of an electric stand mixer.

Pour the melted chocolate and butter into the mixture in thirds, beating between each addition so the mixtures are fully combined before adding more.  You’ll end up with a loose cake batter.

Take a large spoon and equally fill the four ramekins with the batter.  Chill for at least 20 minutes before cooking.

Tip At this stage, you can cover them with cling film and pop them in the freezer.  When you want to cook them, simply carry on as stated and add a few more minutes to the cooking time.

Heat the oven to 200C / fan 180C / gas 6.  Place the fondants on a baking tray and bake for around 10-12 minutes.

You’re looking for a crust to have formed on the top, and they should just start to come away from the sides of the ramekin.  When they’re done, remove from the oven and let them sit for a minute before turning them out.

I find the best way to get these out is to get a sharp knife round the edge to ensure they’re fully detached from the sides.  Then with the ramekin in an oven glove, gently tip it onto a plate.  They look much better the right way up, so I then tip this back onto another plate.

I’ve made these many many times and have never had a problem with teasing them out.  If you do – it doesn’t matter.  They’ll still taste incredible.

Enjoy with a glass of milk and a sullied conscience.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Egg

Tonight was one of those nights in culinary terms, that many will be familiar with.  After a hectic day at work and a rumbling stomach by 5pm,  I try to recall the odds and ends idling in the fridge on the way home to see if my mind can conjure a concoction of substance before I reach the front door.

Whilst the vast chambers of the fridge are mostly vacant this evening, there are some glimmers of light. The things of note are leek, pancetta, some taleggio that’s been hanging about.  Along with a box of eggs.

The humble egg.  One of the key vertebrae along the backbone of fundamental ingredients in the culinary world.  Possibly the single most versatile food item that has ever existed.

Almost ubiquitous in its occupation - you’ll find them hiding in cakes, pastries, desserts, breads, quiches and sauces.  Then there are the dishes that proudly shout about their presence – omelettes, egg and soldiers, scotch eggs, hollandaise, carbonara, egg fried rice, egg and chips to name a small few. They’re used for binding such as in meatballs or burgers.  As raising agents in Yorkshire puddings or soufflés. They’re used as a wash to give colour to biscuits and pastry. 

The various ways in which eggs can be cooked all have one thing in common – they are quick.  Try them baked with spinach and anchovies; fried sunny side up sitting proud upon a tower of crispy rashers; scrambled with smoked salmon, dill and a squeeze of lemon on rye; soft boiled with asparagus spear soldiers; hard boiled, quartered and scattered alongside large crunchy croutons over little gem with an anchovy olive oil sauce; poached, pierced and gently cascading like sunshine lava over a fresh and toasted muffin.

A promise of such wonder encased within a thin and fragile cocoon. When digesting the full and ranging repertoire of the egg, it’s easy to forget that this exquisitely simple yet intricately complex unit is made up of just two components – the yolk, and the white.

The whites are whisked to add structure and stability, producing miraculous meringues and marshmallows. The yolks add moisturising fat which help to emulsify, giving baked goods a smooth and creamy texture and are essential for custards and mayonnaise.

I cracked open three of these wonders, gently whisked with a little milk, added to sweated leaks and crispy pancetta, sliced the tallegio and flipped one half over the other.  Et voila -  an omelette.  Your fridge’s way of mopping up the remnants within and presenting you with something of note. The weary cook’s ultimate and often leaned on fail-safe. 

All hail the wondrous egg.

Alfiyet olsun.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

An oily Italian

The types of bread I particularly like are the ones you can glance at and instantly recognise what they are from appearance alone.  That is a baguette.  That is a focaccia.  Those are chapatis.

Last night’s cookbook perusal was in search for such a recipe, and that could be mixed and proving prior to starting work at 9am in my office for the day, my dining room.  Paul Hollywood threw one up I hadn’t tried before and that I certainly wouldn’t turn away for lunch – ciabatta.

A notoriously wet dough precedes this bread.  And for once, Paul heavily advises to use an electric mixer because of this.  The extra water in the dough turns to steam during the baking process, creating the signature air pockets and open texture.  All of this water makes the mix very sloppy. But boy do you get a result at the end.


Makes 4 / prep 2 hours / bake 25 minutes

Light-textured bread with a crust packed full of flavour.

500g strong white flour, extra for dusting
10g salt
10g instant yeast
40ml olive oil
400ml tepid water
Fine semolina for dusting (optional)

Lightly oil a 2-3 litre square plastic container.  It’s important to use a square tub here to help shape the dough.

Tip the flour in the bowl of the mixer and add the salt to one side and the yeast to the other side, so they’re not close.  Add the olive oil and ¾ of the water and begin mixing on a slow speed.  As the dough starts to come together, slowly add the
remaining water. Then mix for a further 5-8 minutes on a medium speed until the dough is smooth and stretchy.

Tip After the 8 minutes, the dough is incredibly stretchy and elastic.  It reminds me of the party cobwebs you can spray on windows at Halloween, fitting for this time of year.  Take a moment to have a poke – not many doughs look like this.

Tip the dough into the prepared tub and spread it so it reaches all sides and corners.  Cover with cling film and put in a very low oven (the most effective and quickest way to prove, I find).  Leave it there until it has doubled or trebled in size.

When it has done so, remove and turn the oven temperature up to 220C.  Line two baking trays with baking parchment or silicone paper.  If using baking paper, dust with lots of the strong flour.

Dust your work surface heavily with more of the flour and add some semolina too, if you have it.  Carefully tip out the dough (it’s pretty wet) onto the work surface.  There is no need for knocking back, in fact try not to handle it much at all.  You want to keep as much air in the dough as possible.

Coat the top of the dough with more flour and/or semolina.  Cut the dough in half lengthways and divide each of those in half lengthways also.  You should now have four long pieces of dough.  Stretch each piece a bit lengthways and place on the prepared baking trays.

Tip It’s a bit tricky transferring these long pieces of dough onto the trays, because they’re so floppy and sticky.  I used two long knives and slid them under each end, trying to lift them like that.  That worked for the first couple, but not for the last two.  I managed to use one knife and my hand in the end, rolling part of one end onto my hand and lifting the other with the knife.  Either way, you’ll get them on the trays in the end.

Leave the dough to rest for 10 minutes, then bake for 25 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped.  Cool on a wire rack – try and eat some warm though.  Not difficult. 

I’m incredibly pleased with these.  I’m pleased with how they’ve turned out – they look exactly as they’re supposed to, with the signature air pockets.  They also taste fantastic – a deliciously flavour packed crust with a chewy texture, alongside a light and fragrantly olive middle.  I’m also pleased with how they photographed, sliced and ready for my lunch.

In addition to that, this is a bread recipe that only requires a single prove unlike most, resulting in a far shorter time until the end result.  This can only be good. Especially when you’re like me and think about your lunch while eating dinner the night before.
Alfiyet olsun.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Fruit and nut cake

It’s the weekend – rejoice.  Like most, if not all of the weekday workers in the country, I look forward to my weekends with great anticipation.  My reasons are, in no particular order: lie-ins, Homeland and ample time for cooking endeavours.   Therefore multiple entries over the two days of the weekend are likely to become regular occurrences – I hope this is something my readers look forward to getting used to.

A fruit bowl can be a sorry looking sight at times.  When first filled with produce straight from the shop, they are colourful and inviting corners of the kitchen with the promise of fresh snacks, tangy flavours and wholesome satisfaction.  More often than not however, they look considerably past their best – flaccid, wrinkly, bruised, unloved.  Time to accept their fate and turn them away towards the bin - right? Wrong. Never does a fruit bowl beckon me with such calling than when their fragrance just begins to turn to ferment – my single interpretation translating to cooking them up in a dessert.

On Saturday I was faced with such fortune – five paltry looking pears sitting in the bowl helping to ripen the last of my initially insipid garden tomatoes.  And they did a good job, turning them fragrant and a fruity red after a few days.  The pears were a failed attempt to eat one a day for the week as part of my 5-a-day. Plans not having gone quite accordingly, I resort to the only natural alternative.  Make a cake with them.  

With head cocked in contemplation, eyeing up what had been five fine beacons of seasonal produce, I recall a recipe I recently thumbed over from the November issue of delicious magazine.  And from one of my most favoured cooks – Nigel Slater.

A pear and hazelnut cake

Nutty sponge meets fruit crumble for a delicious combination.

There will be enough for 8-12

175g softened butter
85g golden caster sugar
85g light muscovado sugar
80g skinned, toasted hazelnuts
2 eggs
165g self-raising flour
½ tsp ground cinnamon
Few drops of vanilla extract

For the pears
A large juicy lemon
750g pears (5-6 pears)
3tbsp caster sugar
Ground cinnamon

For the crumble
100g plain flour
75g butter
2bsp demerara sugar and a bit extra for the crust
A little more cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 160C / fan 140C/ gas 3 and line the base of a 21-22cm square cake tin with baking paper.

For the pears, squeeze the lemon into a small saucepan.  Peel the pears, cut them into small chunks and place into the lemon juice – it wills top them browning.  Bring the juice to the boil and turn the heat down to a gently simmer.  Scatter over the sugar and a liberal pinch of cinnamon.  Cook with the occasional stir until the pears are translucent and tender.  They should be soft enough to pierce with a skewer with little or no effort.  Try not to colour them beyond the palest gold or to let the juice boil away – you’ll want it for later.

Tip If your pears are particularly ripe as were mine, note that they will need less cooking time before they’re the desired tenderness.
Make the cake – beat the butter and sugars in a food mixer or with an electric hand whisk until a light and pale coffee colour.  This will take a good five to ten minutes, longer if done by hand with a wooden spoon – also an option.  Meanwhile, grind the hazelnuts quite finely.  You can do this in a food processor or with a hand blender and its snug container.

Tip Don’t over grind the nuts or they will become oily.  Also the less fine you grind them, the more texture you’ll get in the sponge.  It’s really up to personal tastes how fine or course you want the nuts.

Break the eggs, beat them gently to just mix the white and yolks and gradually add to the mix with the beater on slow.

Tip If the mixture begins to look like it’s curdling (common when adding eggs to the butter/sugar mix, especially if all added at once) – don’t panic. Just add a tablespoon or two of the flour and it will bring it back to the right consistency.

Add the ground hazelnuts, flour, cinnamon and a couple of drops of vanilla extract. Allow the mixer to go round a few more times on slow to fully combine all the ingredients until smooth.  Scoop out the mixture into the prepared tin (where bowl scrapers come into their own) and smooth it flat.
Lift the pears from their syrup with a draining spoon, reserving the juice.  Place the pears on top of the cake mixture.

To make the crumble topping, blitz the flour and butter to crumbs in a food processor. Add the demerara and mix lightly.  Remove the processor bowl from the stand.  Add a few drops of water and run a fork through the mixture – this will cause some of the crumbs to stick together like small pebbles.  This will make for a more interesting mixture of textures.  Scatter the crumble loosely over the pears, followed by a little more demerara and a pinch of cinnamon.

There is no necessity in having a food processor to make this crumble.  The desired sand like texture can be achieved by rubbing chunks of the butter into the flour with your fingertips.  Although the processor does achieve this in seconds, it does also create extra washing up.  One of life’s many compromises.

Bake for about an hour and check if the sponge is done with the skewer method.  Remove the cake from the oven and set aside. Bring the reserved pear and lemon juice to the boil for a couple of minutes until there is just three or four tablespoons left.  Trickle it over the surface of the cake and allow to cool.
The reason this cake is so good is because it brings together two wonderful elements – sponge and fruit crumble.  The sponge is light, moist and satisfying with its buttery flavour cleanly sliced through by the tartness of the pear and citrus.  Nigel’s pebble crumble suggestion is wonderfully fitting, providing little nuggets of crunch – a welcome presence amongst sponge and cooked fruit.

The other reason this cake is good is because
Matt doesn’t like cooked fruit in dessert.  This means that I get a whole slice plus extra crumble with every portion.  Seeing as I think the fruit upwards is the best part of this cake, that’s a winning situation for me.

I think an apple pie should be next on the list.  

Alfiyet olsun.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Fagioli foray

When on the hunt for a filling and wholesome meal fit for an autumnal evening, I often reach for an Italian or Spanish cookbook, and often look for something containing beans.  

Beans are truly excellent.  They hold their own in the flavour stakes whilst having ample capacity to absorb the flavours surrounding them during the cooking process.  They require little interference (to cook – just soak and boil) and have a nutritional value that rivals the amount of iron found in beef.  They’re high in fibre, low in cost and they leave you feeling duly satiated whilst being incredibly versatile.

My most favoured specimen of the musical fruit is the butter bean.  The first half of its title is true to form – when cooked, a wonderful creamy buttery texture is revealed and the taste is that of mild nuttiness.  Every time I try one of these beans to see if tender, even when I fully know they’re not yet cooked, I never fail to exclaim to the deaf ears of the kitchen ‘but why do butter beans taste SO good?’.

The meal chosen for the weekend was a polenta and borlotti bean bake (I used butter beans instead) chosen from Two Greedy Italians eat Italy – the book from what I believe was the second series.  In my opinion, the best cooking show on the box.  Carluccio and Contaldo - two exceptional characters with their genuine friendship and passion for the culinary excellence their country produces shining through every moment on screen.

‘Mamma mia, why I am cooking SO good?!’ exclaims Contaldo, with hands raised towards the heavens in his wonderfully thick southern Italian accent.

I don’t know Gennaro, but please continue to do so.  It’s a sheer pleasure to watch.

Particularly welcomed with the last series was their foray into the regions of Italy producing recipes that one might not usually associate with the country.  For example cured herring with apples from the lakes – a historically Scandanavian associated plate.  Sauerkraut with sausages or a potato and cabbage bake from the mountains – German staples.  The recipes from the coast will likely be those more usually associated with the reaches of Italy frequented by tourists – pasta with mussels, seafood risotto with courgette flowers, braised squid in tomatoes to name a very small few.

There’s a whole range of recipes earmarked for endeavour and I look forward to getting stuck into those from the cooler mountain regions over this winter.  

Polenta e Fagioli Borlotti al Forno
– Polenta and borlotti bean bake

A real ‘slow food’ dish to be savoured on winter evenings.

Serves 6

200g dried borlotti beans (I used butterbeans as I already had them in stock)

5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

1 leek, finely chopped

1 large carrot, finely chopped

80g panchetta, roughly chopped

10 cherry tomatoes

100g quick cook polenta

Large handful of parsley, finely chopped

80g fontina cheese, cubed (I used taleggio as couldn’t source fontina.

Soak the beans over night in plenty of cold water.  The next day drain, rinse thoroughly and cook in lots of fresh water until tender – about 40 minutes.  Drain and set aside.

Fry the pancetta until they begin to crisp.  Add the onions, celery, leek and carrot and cook for a couple of minutes.  Add the tomatoes and cooked beans and mix together.  Remove from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Make up the polenta according to the instructions on the packet – ensure you keep stiring to avoid any lumps.  Remove from the heat, stir in the parsley and cheese and season to taste. Add about ¾ of the bean mixture until all combined.

Grease the bottom of an oven dish with some butter.  Pour the polenta mixture into it, topping with the remaining beans.  If you’re feeling a bit decadent, add a few dots of any remaining taleggio / fontina to the surface.

Cook in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes until golden.  Remo
ve and serve with some lightly dressed green – perhaps peppery watercress or rocket.

Tip  For a meal like this, I would always favour soaking dry beans over night rather than using those ready cooked from a tin.  It does require some level of foresight but the flavour and texture is completely different. Save tinned beans for a quick meals with little planning – such as with a can of tuna, red onion and watercress with crusty bread for a swift lunch.

Alfiyet olsun.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Old blue eyes Hollywood

Since the purchase of my electric stand mixer, I’ve decided to work through a good proportion of Paul Hollywood’s – How to Bake at a speed of, on average, two bakes a week.  This usually consists of a weekend bake, and a bake on a Thursday on which I more often than not work from home.  From power-knead to first prove all before the clock strikes 9 am.

My intention is not to try each recipe (some don’t appeal) but to find a select few loaves that are delicious and have recipes I've managed to nail.  Today was the turn of the malted loaf.  The photograph in the book did it many favours and I quickly came to the conclusion it would go very well with garden tomatoes and artichoke hearts for lunch. 

Turns out this recipe has made the list.

Malted Loaf

Made with malted flour for great flavour and texture – one to tear rather than slice.

Makes 1 loaf

500g malted bread flour
10g salt
10g instant yeast
30g unsalted butter
Olive oil for kneading
More of the flour for dusting

Tip As advised by Paul, I have purchased a small pot of instant yeast, rather than the separate 7g packets available.  It means you are able to measure the amount of yeast exactly as quite often more than 7g is needed for a decent size loaf, and needing to use one and a bit of those little sachets is uncalled for.

Tip the flour in the mixer bowl - add the salt to one side and the yeast to the other, so they’re not close.  Add the softened butter and ¾ of the water and turn the mixer on to 2 (or just mix together with your hands and start kneading on a lightly oiled surface for about 15 minutes).

Tip I found after a while, the dough ended up wrapping itself around the hook and not touching the sides of the bowl, so it wasn't being kneaded.  This can be the case when making smaller loaves.  The way to resolve this situation is to whack the speed on high – with the aid of the laws of physics, the dough will be flung to the sides as it goes round, allowing it to be kneaded once more.  You may want to stay near your machine in case it attempts to launch itself onto your kitchen floor.

After a good 10-15 minutes in the machine, tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and with floured hands, shape into a cob.  Place into an oiled boil, cover with cling film and leave to prove so it has at least doubled in size.

Tip I find the quickest and most effective way to prove dough is by putting the bowl in a very low oven, about 40C.  It will be warmer than any place in your abode and it means the proving time quoted in recipes is almost halved.  It took my dough just over an hour to double in size – before and after below.

Tip your dough out of the bowl and onto a lightly floured surface.  Fold inwards and punch repeatedly so all the air is knocked out – this is called ‘knocking back’.

Form the dough back into a round, smooth cob shape, place on the baking tray and cover with cling film (allow some give for it to grow) or place in a clean plastic bag.  Put it back in the oven at the same temperature it was proving before.

This is the second prove and is the final rise before you bake the bread.  You can see before and afters of my second prove below.

Once it has clearly doubled in size (as above), dust with flour and cut a deep cross into the dough – I tend to use DIY blades as I never find my knives are sharp enough.  That probably says more about the cook than the knives.

Whack the oven up to 220c and bake for around 30 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when tapped underneath.  Place it on a wire rack to cool (at least a bit) before devouring.

It’s not just bread this book covers, but also pastries, sourdoughs, biscuits, puddings, cakes, tarts and pies.  It’s actually very informative as along with recipes, it provides the knowledge needed to understand the processes involved with baking.

Paul starts off by talking through a wide range of available flour, how they each behave due to their differing gluten contents, and what type of dough each can be used for.  He also talks through the purpose of the necessary additional ingredients such as fat, water, yeast, salt and so on.  Photographs are included for all technique descriptions – for example kneading, shaping, knocking back, plaiting and so on.

The book also walks you through how to make some staple pastries, once again with the aid of photographs.  Examples include puff pastry, sweet pastry, short crust pastry etc.   While most of these are available ready made in supermarkets, I fully appreciate the inclusion of these core recipes and look forward to attempting some puff from scratch.

It’s reassuring to see some classics in the book (crumpets – not technically baking as they’re done in a pan, buy my goodness I need to purchase some crumpet rings sharpish); teacakes; focaccia; ciabatta; hot cross buns; croissants; Danish pastries – Mr A’s most favoured; scones; baklava; lemon drizzle; Victoria sponge to name but a few).  But there are some more classics I feel are missing - I would like to have seen Paul's techniques to make the perfect pannetone.  I’ve attempted it two Christmases in a row and while they’re always delicious and readily devoured, I don’t quite get the texture right.  Part cake part bread – quite difficult to master.  Apple pie, doughnuts and profiteroles would be some others – I don’t believe there is any reference to choux at all.

Regardless, I feel this is a good staple on the recipe shelf both for those new to the baking game, whilst still providing something for the more tenured bakers out there. 

And released just in time for Christmas – handy that.

Alfiyet olsun.

Wright Brothers Oyster and Porterhouse - Review

I have previously had three experiences with oysters. The first was underwhelming at The Good Food Show a few years back and consisted of paying £1 a pop for a gum line full of grit with a grimace.  The second was at Le Chardon with friends as part of a fruit de mere for my birthday celebrations three summers ago. The third was at Lily’s Seafood, Grill and Bar situated close by to the previous (both quite near where I work).  The last two were far superior to the first, but I had still yet to be swept off my feet by the wave of salty freshness I expected with invertebrates that attract such an avid following the world over.

Having recently learnt that oysters are in season over the autumn, I decided it was time I gave these notorious sea dwellers a fair chance.  If they were to ever bewitch me with their romanticism, it would be now and it would be at The Wright Brothers Oyster and Porterhouse in Borough, as recommended by my good friend Mel.  She is especially partial to one of these slippery customers down her gullet now and again.

Mel arrived at the venue before me, as is customary (not her being early, but me almost always being late) and secured a table close to the entrance and en face to the oyster bar.  I didn’t get a chance to inspect the rear of the restaurant as it was already heavily creaking with clientele at the stern at only 7pm – navigating a path through such a throng prior to being fed would only result in working up more of an appetite.  Not desirable after my early lunch.

Perched on the stools along the length of the bar were small groups of friends, colleagues and lovers throwing heads back to accommodate mollusc along with some fizz.  Mel swiftly ordered while I was busy absorbing the heaving atmosphere – two glasses of prosecco,  a dozen of the selection of rocks (dorest, cumbrae, carlingford, lindisfarne) followed by a petit fruit de mere – and more bread please.    

The oysters landed on the table. After a quick fondle with a fork to detach meat from shell, a squeeze of lemon, and a little prayer, I opened my palate to the promise of excellence.

After the first devouring it seemed as though churning torrents of the North Sea had deluged the restaurant, engulfing everything in its path with an invigorating saline slap across the chops.  Feet did stamp and squeals were made in ecstasy.

Juicy sweet meat, wonderful texture and as fresh as if the sea were through the back doors and the oysters had been plucked out just a few minutes previously.  They were truly something else.

A fleeting, wide eyed and knowing glance between Mel and myself of ‘erm – a dozen more?’ was thankfully interrupted by the petit fruit de mere platter presenting itself.  Which was in fact not petit at all.  Fat juicy prawns, mussels, shrimp, the sweetest clams and, someone was shining on us, more oysters.  A third course of incredible Neal’s Yard cheeses with giant grapes and my taste buds were singing for the rest of the evening.

Any qualms I previously had about oysters were atomically blasted out of existence that evening.  Forget tales of slimy flesh and stories of launching them down the gullet to avoid any real interaction with the meat.  Instead find a reputable establishment - eat them fresh, raw and naked.  Chew, savour, and delight over these alien looking wonders.

Alfiyet olsun.

Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Awkward. Difficult. Uncomfortable. Embarrassing  Words some like to associate with the act of asking for something that is slightly uncommon or requiring some effort on the waiters part, within a dining environment. 

I have a good friend. His name is John

One of John’s most actively avoided situations are those containing any level of confrontation. Said confrontation is often only seen from John’s side and in fact, does not exist. Such situations involve seemingly present but in fact phantom ‘bad vibes’ or ‘atmosphere’ when requesting something not following the default to and fro of conversation between diner and waiter. For example, asking for brown bread instead of white; raising a hand for another small plate; pointing out to the waiter that the starter is in fact cold.

I was out for dinner with John and an ex-colleague  at The Stonhouse in Clapham in South West London. It’s a gastro-pub affair which is seemingly revived in the evenings after the gym-clad roosting mums of Nappy Valley have polished off their lunches and disappeared to Starbucks for a scalding excuse for muddy water – they’ll take a venti vat.

John’s hopes for an awkward free rendez-vous were dashed from the offset. Whilst waiting for me to park my car, they gave my reservation name only to be met with ‘A table for three? We only have a reservation for two under this name’. The instinctive reaction in my absence was to apologise unreservedly and admit immediate fault and responsibility on my behalf in order to avoid what would have been interpreted by John as an ‘atmosphere’ between client and staff. Discreet and comfortable table for three offered nonetheless, and dining disaster swiftly side stepped.

I join the party of two and announce from the offset that I won’t be partaking in The Stonhouse’s rather good pies, as I’d had a huge and very tasty full English down in Bournemouth earlier in the day and was still rolling from its digestive presence. What I would in fact have was – two starters. No main. Just two starters. Perhaps a pudding after if I was still hankering. The duck parfait and potted beef caught my eye – I had made my decision. Two starters it would be.

John was quietly but visibly mortified by this brazen act of what I suspect he viewed as a complete disdain for the proper order and unwritten rules set about by a restaurant environment. A starter and a main can be ordered. Perhaps a main and dessert. If you’re feeling brave enough to up the chances of interaction with the waiter further, why not go for all three. But ordering two starters? And no main? A request that has probably never been raised in the history of dining out. Ever. The only possible outcome of this was pandemonium. This tortured soliloquy churning through John's head, I’m sure.

‘I’m going to be a bit odd and order two starters, and perhaps a pudding later.’

The bullet from my gun of confrontation had been fired. John closed his eyes and positioned himself in the brace position. 

‘Not a problem – what would you like?’ 

The waiter did not recoil in disbelief. He did not skulk towards the kitchen pale faced and full of terror. John opened his eyes and after an initial bout of vertigo, recalled his whereabouts mid-gaze into a smiling face patiently waiting for his order.

‘I’m going to be normal and order a main.’

We shared in the joys of good food, company and a glass of wine, and the evening was a success. The potted beef could have done with more seasoning, but I wasn't keen for John to see his food twice that night, so I thought I’d spare him the 'embarrassment'.

A lesson for those cautious of requesting something a little off the beaten track in a dining environment – if they’re an establishment worth the salt in their kitchen, they’ll always try to accommodate without a hint of disdain.

Retuning back to my inbox the following morning:

Booking confirmed : Table for 3 for Dinner at The Stonhouse 17 October 2012 - at 19:00

Thought so.

Alfiyet olsun.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Yolks are best

Something I truly despise and instilled into my very core during my younger years, is food waste. This includes purchasing more fresh food than can be consumed within the necessary time frame; leaving a tiny bit of food on the plate and throwing it away (why not just eat it – you ate the rest of the plate – it’s one more spoonful); and the boyfriend having an intrinsic aversion to finishing a jar / bottle / packet / box of food stuffs before opening another. 

Me: ‘Why are there two bottles of milk open?’
Matt: ‘Because I wanted it fresh’
Me: ‘The older one is still fine’
Matt: ‘You can finish it then’

I can finish it, but this is of course not the point.  I often do not notice the initial open bottle and continue to use the newer one. By the time I realise there was an older one open (which I would have happily continued to consume) it has already turned. Hence, the waste.  We currently have five open jars of jam in the fridge.  Is this necessary? I digress.

There are four egg yolks left over from the meringue making yesterday.  Almost certainly the best part of the egg – I can’t bring myself to dispose of them.  Having toyed with the idea of transforming them into mayonnaise, chocolate fondants or crème brûlée this evening (over a smoked salmon and rye lunch and a game of ping pong),  I’ve settled on the brûlée as I have a pot of double cream in the fridge that needs seeing to.  Also for a similar reason as yesterday – it’s not something I've made before and I've had a fully loaded blowtorch that hasn't seen the light of day since last year.  

rème Brûlée

The ultimate dessert.

Serves 6

500ml / 18fl oz double cream
1 vanilla pod
100g / 4oz caster sugar (plus extra for the topping)
6 free-range egg yolks

Preheat the oven to 150C / 300F / Gas 2.

Pour the cream into a saucepan. Split the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape the seeds into the cream. 

Tip If you want to reduce the amount of cream used, you can replace some with some full fat milk to make up the same volume.  I had about 2/3 cream and 1/3 milk.  It will be less creamy but still delicious.

In a bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks together until pale and fluffy.  Bring the cream to boiling point – just when the bubbles start to form around the edge, turn the heat off.

Pour the cream over the egg mixture, whisking continuously until thickened - this indicates that the eggs have begun to cook slightly.  
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a large jug, and then use this to fill six ramekins to about two-thirds full.  Place the ramekins into a large roasting tray and pour in enough hot water to come halfway up their outsides - this is called a bain-marie.

Place the bain-marie onto the centre shelf of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the custards are just set but still a bit wobbly in the middle.  Remove the ramekins from the water and set aside to cool to room temperature. Chill until needed.

When ready to serve, sprinkle one level teaspoon of caster sugar evenly over the surface of each crème brûlée, then caramelise with a chefs' blow-torch.  If you are without torch, you can achieve the same effect under a very hot grill – keep an eye on it.

Tip I suggest caramelising well in advance of wishing to devour – put these back in the fridge until very chilled.  In my opinion these taste far better cold.  If you’ve just torched it, the custard will be a bit warm.

A couple of custard related challenges with this.  My torch ran out of gas very early on (not as fully loaded as I thought) and so I had to resort to the grill – hence the burnt edges.  Let’s try to ignore them.  When the custard was poured into the ramekins they almost reached the top.  Then during cooking the volume significantly reduced leaving some around the edges, which is what has burnt during the caramelising.  I think the custard had too much air in it and these bubbles burst during the cooking.  This would have been fine and I would have avoided heating up the sides if I was using the precise blow torch.  Lesson learnt.

Alfiyet olsun.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

italian meringue

A question posed: how does one pep up a biting Monday morning after risking life and wheels navigating paths past bullish London bus drivers through Tooting in the morning rush hour? ‘With baked goods’ is the answer to that question.

My introduction (and by introduction I mean mandatory enforcement) of Baking Monday’s to my department commenced with my week being first up. Any excuse to exercise the elite biscuit making set complete with stainless steel icing gun – shamefully its first outing since given to me as a gift last Christmas from Matt.

Two hours and rolls of parchment later, I’ve managed my first attempt at Italian meringue in the form of amaretti biscuits. Double the amount than in the picture was made, with the most perfectly round and uniform ones selected for show and colleague consumption.  

They have the signature initial crunch quickly turning to chew. Anonymous and unanimous votes of 4/5 all round from colleagues, with many coming back for seconds, thirds and into double digits – the best rating of all.

Amaretti Biscuits

Perfect with the morning's strong coffee.

Makes 15-20

125g ground almonds
125g icing sugar

3tsp plain flour
2 egg whites
75g caster sugar
1tsp almond extract

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F / Gas 4).  Mix the sugar, ground almonds and flour in a bowl so they’re evenly distributed.Whist the egg whites in a clean and dry bowl until soft peaks form, then add the sugar a tablespoon at a time until the mixture becomes stiff and shiny.

ip I whisked these in my newly purchased electric food mixer – much easier to add sugar with two hands free.  If you don’t have an electric mixer stand than an electric hand whisk will do the job fine – just try to secure your bowl as you won’t be able to hold it whilst you’re adding the sugar with the other hand.

Fold in the almond mixture and almond extract until just blended.  Be sure not to over work the mixture with your spatula as you’ll lose all the air you just worked so hard to get.  Fold until just combined.

Spoon the mixture in a piping bag and pipe into 3-4 cm wide mounds well spaced out onto baking paper.  No need to grease the paper first.  I found using a relatively wide plain nozzle looked neatest.  Use a wet finger to smooth the top of each mound. The more you do here the more uniform they’ll look when cooked – don’t spend to long on this though.  Bake until they just start to turn light brown.

 This time will vary depending on the size of the biscuits you’ve piped but I found 3cm wide ones only took 5-10 minutes or so.  Which is strange as the original recipe states 40 minutes.  Any dark brown bits will taste burnt and be all crisp and no chew.

Carefully slide something thin underneath each one to remove from the paper – I used a bowl scraper. Turn the oven off and leave the door ajar with the biscuits inside – this will allow them to dry out.  Remove once cool and store in an air tight container. Scoffing a good few whilst still warm is recommended. 

What’s especially pleasing is that this weekly occurrence has spurred colleagues of mine who have never before sought after those illustrious stiff peaks of the egg white to don the apron, pre-heat the oven and pick up a wooden spoon.  

Not only was it their first practice attempt, but they enjoyed it.  Enjoyed it so much that baking will now feature as a regular in their daily lives.  Baking love shared

Alfiyet olsun.

print button