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Archive for the ‘Cooking Challenges’ Category

As you may have realised by this point if you have read any of my other posts I’m a little christmas-mad. I wasnt always this way and I’m not entirely sure what happened but I think it was something to do with moving from the warm southern hemisphere (where christmas day consists of cold meat, salad and a dunk in the pool to maintain a temperature suitable for the continuation of life), to the cold climate of Scotland. I remember the first time I walked past a holly bush in Edinburgh that actually had holly berries on it and did a little jump-squeak-dance on the spot of excitement which must have really scared my fellow pedestrians. You don’t want to see me when it snows.

My favourite kind of post to read at this time of year is other blogger’s last minute ideas for christmas dishes, drinks and foodie presents just in case I’ve missed out on something I wont be able to continue life without eating/drinking/owning. And I’m equally as eager to share my own santa list and some recipes so that I am returning the favour to those with a similar compulsion.

Food

Here’s a selection  recipes from other blogs and my own with a Christmassy theme which I would recommend or have me interested.

      

Creamy Pea Soup – coconut milk makes this deliciously creamy and sweet and its the perfect cheerful green….   Spaghetti with Marmite (from Nigella) – when you’ve had enough of turkey….    Chocolate & Thyme Mousse – if you’re sick of Christmas pud….    Poached Pears (from Kosher Camembert) – festive and just stunning….   Chilli Glazed Gammon – warm and spicy….   Chestnut Chocolate Pots (from Nigella) – winter in a cup….   Parmesan, Rosemary and Pancetta Grissini – perfect for parties and gifts….   Gingerbread Latte Cupcakes – if Christmas had a smell….

Presents

Stomach sorted, presents next. Some ideas from my own Christmas list and other brilliant foodie gift ideas I’ve seen this year.

Le Creuset Stoneware Mixing Jug, AlmondThe basics – Stoneware Mixing Jug. 

Everyone needs a sturdy mixing bowl . I have a big metal one which is great because its light and good for whipping meringue but sometimes you need a heavy one that wont slide around the counter top while you are mixing. This one has the benefit of a pouring lip and Le Creuset good looks.

McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and CultureCook Books – McGee on Food & Cooking.

I love cookbooks that either have a narrative with the recipes or teach you about why you have to do things and the science behind culinary techniques so this book is on my wish list this year.

Its not Christmas to me without a good book to read on Christmas day after I’ve eaten so much I’ve lost the power of movement and speech and have to lie down (I know, aren’t I rock and roll).

Landing_page_beansSubscriptions – Kopi Gourmet Coffee.

My Delicious Magazine subscription is still one of my favourite presents but this is a subscription with a twist. If you know anyone who loves good coffee and drinks enough of it to receive a new bag every month then I think this is very clever.

Crafty – Jam making stuff.

I want to start making my own preserves and although I’ve started by making my own fruit mince without the aid of any special equipment its harder to make proper jams and other preserves without decent jars and strainers etc.

I have my eye on these jars  at Lakeland as well as a pile of other preserving related paraphenalia and books on amazon.co.uk

Andrew James Professional Fully Automatic Ice Cream Maker With Built-in Compressor + Free 128 Page Ice Cream Maker Cook BookGadgets – Ice Cream Maker

Every cook loves gadgets. My cupboards are already crammed full but I am dying to make my own ice cream. My head is brimming with recipe ideas but I’ve tried making it without an ice cream machine and it just doesnt come out the same.

I dont have space in my freezer or patience for the kind with a bowl you have to freeze so this one is a well priced version of the proper electric kind.

Christmas Cooking Challenge

And last but not least, don’t forget to join in my Mince Pie Challenge if you are making your own this year. The idea is to reinvent the standard formula with a twist of any kind but if you just want to share your traditional home-made pies you can still send me a link or photo and at the end of the month I’ll post the entries, pick a winner and send the best one a little surprise foodie christmas gift.  Just leave me a comment to let me know you are entering by the end of the Month.

I’ve started by making Nigella’s Rhubarb and Vanilla Mince which turned out to be delicious and I’m using that to try out different mince pie themed pastries and biscuits. Here’s the recipe if you want an alternative to the ordinary suet and citrus peel kind. The vanilla makes it really rich and velvety.

Rhubarb and Vanilla Fruit Mince

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast.

  • 1kg rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 5mm slices
  • 300g soft brown sugar
  • 2 vanilla pods
  • 2 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 200g raisins
  • 250g sultanas
  • 225g currants
  • 2 tbsp cherry brand

Put the sliced rhubarb with the sugar into a large pan. Cut the vanilla pod in halves length ways and scrape out the seeds, then cut each half into pieces, adding seeds and pod slices to the pan. Add the mixed spice and cook for about 5 mins.

Add the dried fruits and simmer for about 30 mins. Stir in the brandy and take off the heat. When it’s cool enough to handle, bottle in jars.

Makes 1.25 litres.

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Success! After last week’s disastrous attempts I was sceptical about whether or not I was going to be able to say that.

Technical skills challenge

Thanks to a lot of encouraging advice from friends and family after my plea for help, I summoned the strength to try again on Saturday. So out came the blackberry crème patissiere (which I had to stash in the freezer while I regrouped – turns out it freezes very well by the way), piping bag and other paraphernalia and off I went again. This time I used a recipe with slightly less water (thank you Judy!) and  made a few other tweaks which I’ve highlighted in the recipe and as soon as the choux buns went into the oven I could tell this batch was going to behave itself.

So I have conquered my first technical challenge which should bring with it some sense of achievement… but the other thing I learnt this month was that profiteroles and I still don’t quite get on.

With most things you bake, the sense of  satisfaction hits as soon as they come out of the oven, risen and golden and just as you hoped. With choux pastry, the pressure only increases when they come out of the oven. Then one has to endure the excruciating process of waiting for the last possible moment to fill them and hope that somebody eats the last one before the pastry goes all soft and frankly, inedible (I can’t bear to throw pastries in the bin, its like abandoning children). So profiteroles just don’t have that soothing effect that one gets from preparing cakes and the like and knowing your work here is done.

Having said all that I am still just a little proud of myself, and I think I’ll make them again, as more of a pudding, with a hot sauce and ready and waiting mouths to eat them all at once, which I think is how best to enjoy them.

Extraordinary Flavours

You’ve probably also noticed that these little guys are flaunting a fairly unorthodox flavour combination, because this is my November “extraordinary flavours challenge” entry as well. This idea started with Whittards flavoured tea again but this time it was a bag of Amaretto fruit infusion that got me thinking. The infusion is made up of dried almonds, rose hips and blackberries amongst other things and the fruity and yet aromatic wafts off a cup of this brewed with hot water made me think about winter fruits and warm spicy flavours and how well they support each other (think cinnamon and apples). So my brain wandered from there through various potential combinations until my stomach arrived at blackberry and chai. It definitely works… and makes you sound awfully posh in front of your guests when combined with the word profiterole. If you like the flavour idea but you don’t want to make profiteroles or you want to make something to give as a gift that has a bit more shelf life then you could just as easily use the same  idea for biscuits or cupcakes. Flavour the base with either the fruit or the tea and use the other one for the filling/icing.

The recipe

Adapted from a choux pastry recipe collected by my aunt Judy from a South African Fair Lady Magazine. The basic crème patissiere recipe is adapted from this one.

Pastry

  • 50g butter
  • 125ml water
  • 70g sifted flour
  • 2ml salt
  • 2 medium eggs

Crème Patissiere

  • 50g butter
  • 3 tbsp castor sugar
  • 1 egg and 2 egg yolks
  • 400ml milk
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • half a cup of freeze dried blackberry powder
  • 1 tbsp Whittards Amaretto fruit infusion (optional – it gives the filling an extra nutty floral flavour and it was the inspiration for this recipe but not essential)

Chai topping

  • 100g white chocolate
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 spiced chai teabag and a little milk or cream

Make the creme patissiere first. Put the cornflour and sugar in a bowl and stir in the eggs to make a paste. Add the split vanilla pod and the fruit infusion if using, to the milk and bring to a simmer. Sieve the milk into a bowl to remove the dried fruit and pod and scrape any remaining vanilla seeds into the mixture. Pour onto the eggs, stirring constantly, then return to the pan and stir over a low heat until the mixture thickens. Pour into a bowl and mix in the blackberry powder.Cover with cling film and leave to cool before chilling in the fridge.

For the choux pastry, put butter and water into a saucepan and gently melt the butter.  Bring to the boil, take off the heat and tip in the mixture of flour and salt. Return to the stove and beat for 1-2 mins or until mixture is smooth and leaves the sides of the saucepan.  Leave 5 – 10 mins to cool.  Add the eggs a little at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition (with an electric mixer to beat in enough air) to make a smooth , shiny paste that will hold its shape.

Pipe 7cm circles onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and bake at 200C for 20 -30 minutes, or until well risen and golden. If you have a hot oven like mine then turn the oven down after 10 min to about 170C so that they don’t burn. Remove from the oven and make a slit in the side to release the steam. Dry out for another 5 min in the cool oven if necessary (I found they didn’t need it this time round).

To make the topping, melt the chocolate in a pan over a pot of boiling water. Infuse the chai teabag in just enough cream or milk to soak the tea bag and stir over a low heat to concentrate. Drain the teabag and add about a tsp of this to the chocolate, not too much or it wont set. Stir in the spices and cool slightly. Dip the top of each profiterole in the ganache and sprinkle with blackberry powder. Set aside to cool and set. You can do this before you fill them as it doesn’t seem to soften the pastry too much. If you were making this as a pudding you could also add more cream or milk to make a warm chocolate sauce and pour over the profiteroles at the last minute.

Pipe in the filling just before you serve them (ideally no more than an hour beforehand or they will get soft) by poking the nozzle through the bottom of the profiterole or by cutting them in half and replacing the lids after you have filled them.

Here are the lessons I learned so that you can avoid the same initial misfortune:

  • Use the ratio of water to flour as I have above and keep stirring the flour/water mix over the heat for 1-2 min to remove some of the moisture
  • Be careful with your oven temperature – you don’t want the initial heat to make them rise but if your oven is hot you need to turn it down to avoid burnt outsides and soggy deflating insides
  • Use an electric beater if you have one to mix in the eggs otherwise you don’t get enough air and a stiff enough batter
  • Try to pipe or spoon them as neatly as you can as lopsided piping or upward tails makes them go a bit wonky when they rise (although if this is your only problem then you are doing fine)

I’d love to know if this recipe works for other people so please let me know if you try it and even better send me your own flavour ideas! Next month I’ll be posting my challenge subjects at the beginning of the month so that you can enter your own versions if you’re feeling competitive!

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Friends are always asking me if I’m going to enter competitions like The Great British Bake Off or Masterchef and although I appreciate their somewhat misguided faith in my cooking abilities it immediately focuses my mind on all the glaring gaps in my repertoire, particularly essential techniques like pastry making that I am yet to attempt, without which I would get laughed straight out of a professional kitchen.

It’s funny how people assume that when you start writing about food, you know what you are talking about. Anyone who has seen reality tv can tell that just because your creative output is displayed on a screen doesn’t necessarily mean you have any talent. However it’s that automatic faith that makes one feel as though one should be doing something deserving. So instead of continuing to guiltily brush off the kind suggestions of friends and family and walk around feeling like a culinary imposter, I am setting myself a challenge. And not being one to set myself a nice sensible target,  it has turned into three challenges.

Of course as soon as I write them down I will be forced to stick to my guns… which is partly the reason for involving witnesses… and partly to garner the moral support I think.

Challenge number 1

  • The first challenge is technical. Each month I will learn a different technical skill that I’ve been too scared or too lazy to learn before now (think puff pastry – eek).

Challenge number 2

  • The second challenge is to produce extraordinary flavours.  I’ll try to create at least one dish with a suitably unusual flavouring or combination of flavours  that I haven’t seen anyone else produce before. This one is about learning which flavours work without following somebody else’s instructions.

Challenge number 3

  • My third and final challenge is reinventing a classic. This is probably the easiest of the three and probably overlaps with extraordinary flavours quite a lot but this is slightly different as it’s about picking one classic dish and creating my own recipes that remain faithful to the original idea but think outside the box a bit.

I think that should keep me out of trouble for a while. I havent got around to creating a proper plan for what to make each month yet or deciding when my self-inflicted boot camp will come to an end but in the meantime I got so enthusiastic about the idea that I went and created two dishes that fit snugly into categories 2 and 3 to get me started, and to give you some idea of where I’m going with this.

Extraordinary Flavours Challenge – Strawberry Rooibos Tea Cake

I guess I cheated a little bit as Whittard’s had already come up with the idea of pairing the Rooibos and Strawberry but I’d been thinking about a fruit and tea flavoured cake when I saw this tea and this option gets around the problem of finding fruit to bake with in winter. Even  although strawberries are normally a summer ingredient the tea infusion turns them into something more autumnal and cosy. It sounds a little obvious now that I’m writing it down but nibbling a slice alongside a cup of hot tea brings out the flavour in both the tea and the cake and works almost like a good wine with the right cheese. Perfect bedfellows. 

  • 225g plain flour
  • 225g softened butter
  • 225g caster sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 4 tbsp strawberry rooibos tea (made by stewing 4 tsp of tea leaves in about a cup of water for as long as possible and then cooling – the more concentrated the better)
  • 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of icing sugar (depending on how much and how runny you like your icing)

Preheat the oven  170 degrees and butter and line a loaf tin. Cream the butter with an electric beater, add the sugar and continue to beat until pale and fluffy. slowly beat in the eggs one at a time. Sift the flour and fold into the butter mixture. Add 2 tbsp of the concentrated tea and mix until just combined. Pour into the loaf tin and bake for an hour or until golden and an inserted skewer comes out clean. Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.  When the loaf is cool put the remaining 2 tbsp of tea into a bowl and add the icing sugar until you obtain the required consistency. Drizzle over the cake.

Reinventing a Classic Challenge – Winter Squash Lasagne

Most people have their own specific recipe for lasagne but it always uses the classic combination of beef and tomatoes. There’s nothing wrong with a classic lasagne and you might be thinking, if it aint broke… but I’m choosing it as the first subject of my reinvention challenge because other than vegetarian versions its not something everyone attempts to play around with very often. The star of this version is winter squash. It uses Butternut squash and Courgette as the main ingredients – yes I know Courgette isn’t strictly a squash but it belongs to the same squash/marrow family in my mind and it is gentle enough that it doesn’t overdo the number of loud ingredients. I also used turkey instead of beef as it plays a supporting role instead of taking over the show so to speak.

  • 300g turkey mince
  •  2 small courgettes, grated
  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • few sprigs of sage leaves
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 20g flour
  • 30g butter
  • 500ml milk
  • handful grated mature white cheddar
  • dried lasagne sheets
  • sprinkle of parmesan for the top

Fry the onion in a little oil until soft, then add the turkey mince and continue to fry until it starts to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes and chicken stock and simmer until the liquid has reduced, about 20-3o min. Meanwhile either roast or gently fry the cubed butternut until soft.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. To make the white sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour. Cook over a medium heat for a few minutes and then whisk in the milk a little at a time. Keep stirring until the sauce starts to thicken and then add the grated cheese.

Starting with mince at the bottom, create layers of mince, grated courgette, lasagne, white sauce and butternut to fill a lasagne dish. It doesn’t really matter what order you create the layers in or how many you have of each but make sure the lasagne sheets have white sauce or meat on them otherwise they will be too dry. I like a layer of courgette on the top sprinkled with parmesan because it looks pretty and goes a little crispy in the heat of the oven. Once assembled place in the oven for 30-40 min until the top is starting to brown and the lasagne sheets are soft when tested with a knife.

So that marks the start of my self-inflicted cooking school. For November, I’m going to attempt choux pastry, come up with another lasagne recipe or two and think up some new flavour ideas which will hopefully merit a cursory glance.

Should you feel the urge to go one step further and join me for one or all of the challenges, I would welcome the company and love to see what ideas you have so I’ll keep you posted on the next subject. If you choose to remain a spectator, I still welcome the company and hope  you draw some inspiration from the recipes.

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