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Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Category

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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Its almost winter and the summer fruit and vegetables are disappearing from the supermarket shelves. This brings on the urge to cook with them as much as possible before they disappear completely and one is faced with nothing but squashes and brassicas. I do love the comfort and earthiness of winter veg but I will get plenty of time to enjoy cooking with them so I might as well make hay while the sun shines.

I bookmarked this recipe as soon as the update appeared in my inbox and it turned out to be just as good as Deb made it sound on her blog.  Its a little more fiddly than opening a tin of plum tomatoes but there’s something very therapeutic about peeling and de-seeding tomatoes with your bare hands and if tomatoes are in season then the fresh flavour is worth the extra effort.

Use the best tomatoes you can otherwise you wont get as much flavour from the final dish and dont ask me why, but infusing the olive oil with the garlic, chilli and basil and adding it at the end instead of putting it into the sauce base does somehow add something special.

If you don’t like the thought of squishing tomatoes between your fingers and you have children (and you don’t mind cleaning your kitchen from top to bottom) then you could always outsource this job but why should someone else have all the fun.

The smitten kitchen recipe recommends using a potato masher to break down the tomatoes while they are cooking which is a clever approach if you don’t have any other tools to hand but I found I had to use an immersion blender to get the fine texture I wanted and I think it makes the sauce that much more velvety. Make sure you cook the sauce for long enough too so that the tomatoes get nice and concentrated otherwise it will be too watery and wont cling to your pasta properly (as Deb says you can always add some water from the pasta if you find you’ve gone too far).

Unfortunately I’m feeding a man who thinks I’ve failed as cook if I try to make him eat something that doesn’t have any meat in it so I served the sauce and pasta with meatballs I had tucked away in the freezer (just pan fried, not added to the sauce to keep the flavours separate) but if you’re not pandering to a carnivore then there’s no need. The recipe is about the tomatoes and adding meat just unnecessary. The beauty is the simplicity.

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