June 18, 2014 § 4 Comments
I have a very neglected strawberry patch. When we first changed our garden to create space to plant vegetables, I planted five Cambridge Favourite strawberry plants along with the lettuces and tomatoes. Since then, I have been very inattentive and have let them multiply all over the place until they take up a good third of the growing area. This year, because of pregnancy and baby, I have been particularly neglectful, but despite that, and the efforts of some greedy local wood pigeons, there has been a bumper crop.
I put the first batch into roasted strawberry syrup and strawberry frozen yoghurt, following Jennie’s recipes. Then as another batch started to look neglected in the fridge, I knew the only way to hang onto their fragrance and flavour was jam.
Strawberry jam has a particularly tricky reputation. This is because strawberries contain very little pectin, the sticky substance that makes jams thicken, and so need lots of encouragement to set. It’s easy to end up with strawberry soup, which slides and drips off scones and toast. To combat this tendency, recipes typically include lemon juice, lots of sugar and added pectin, either from a bottle or using jam sugar.
I wanted a fresh tasting jam, without excessive boiling, and something I could do quickly (babies require you to shorten all tasks as much as possible). Many recipes ask you to macerate the fruit and sugar overnight, so they were out. I decided on Kim Boyce’s recipe in ‘Good to the Grain‘. This one is unusual in a few ways. First, it asks you to cook the sugar with water into a syrup before adding the fruit. My guess is that this allows you to cook the berries for a shorter time. It also contains much less sugar than other recipes: a cup for 3 lbs of fruit (or 230g sugar to 1.3kg fruit).
I liked the idea of this recipe, but was a bit scared that it would produce a soup, so I made the following changes:
– although I had only 900g (2lbs) fruit, I kept the sugar quantity the same
– I added the juice of half a lemon
– I then chopped the rest of the lemon half into slices and boiled it in water with the pips for 10 minutes. I then strained this into the pan with the berries.
This is a quick way to extract some pectin, and if you have more time, can be done more thoroughly, with the pieces squeezed through muslin (see marmalade post). This is loosely adapted from a June Taylor method, and a Christine Ferber recipe. As well as helping the set, I find adding lemon to strawberry jam really lifts the flavour, and prevents it from being cloying. (Felicity Cloake agrees).
[to see how effective this approach can be, when you have a lot of lemon pips, put them in a bowl and cover with cold water, and leave them to stand. The water will likely gel as the pectin coating the pips dissolves in the water.]
After boiling for 15-20 minutes, the mixture reduced down to a thick bright-red syrup, and after testing for a set, I took it off the heat. I then added a final lemon flourish by zesting the remaining lemon half straight into the jam before putting into jars.
This does not produce a remotely stiff jelly, and is a decidedly spoonable consistency that needs to be kept in the fridge. But the bright colour and flavour are enough to convince me to try this approach again when strawberries come around next year.
Recipe: Soft set strawberry jam
adapted from Kim Boyce ‘Good to the Grain’, an inspiring book of recipes for unconventional flours and grains
- 900g strawberries
- 240g sugar
- A lemon
Wash and hull the strawberries. Cut most of them in half, leaving the tiny thumbnail sized ones whole, and cutting the big monsters into quarters. The berries will break down as they cook, so the pieces don’t need to be small.
Halve the lemon, juice one half and reserve, and slice the empty half into thin pieces. Put into a small saucepan with any pips, cover with cold water and boil for about 10 mins to extract the pectin.
Put a couple of saucers or small plates in the freezer to check the set later on.
Place the sugar into a large saucepan or preserving pan and add about 100ml water. This is the pan you will make the jam in, so it needs enough room to allow the jam to bubble up (minimum of 4 litre capacity). Put on a medium-high heat and bring to the boil to dissolve the sugar. Swirl the pan occasionally to ensure the sugar crystals all dissolve, and to make sure there are no hotspots where the sugar could start to caramelise.
Once the syrup is clear and bubbling, add the strawberries, lemon juice, and strain in the water from the lemon half, pressing down on the solids. If you have time, you can cool these pieces and put into muslin and squeeze it to extract even more pectin.
Bring everything to a rapid boil, turning the temperature down if it threatens to boil over. Stir occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. The mixture should reduce down and thicken. When it seems thick, take out a spoonful onto one of the cold saucers or plates. Leave it in the fridge for a minute or two, and take the pan off the heat. When you push the side of the blob of jam with a finger, you should be able to see wrinkles on the surface, which indicate a set. Mine reached 102.5C with a thermometer when I took it off the heat (usually you look for 104C for jam to set, but as this has little sugar, and sets softly, it won’t get there).
With the jam off the heat, zest in the remaining lemon half and stir in. Allow the jam to settle and thicken a little in the pan before putting into clean, sterilised jam jars. As this has so little sugar, it should be kept in the fridge.
June 14, 2014 § 1 Comment
So I am finally ready to emerge from my pregnancy-and-baby blogging hiatus. Since becoming pregnant last summer, I haven’t really had the energy or the urge to write here. I haven’t baked or cooked very much at all – especially not during that queasy first trimester. And my energy was sapped just getting through the day. But now I can actually get a little time for myself, if only with my phone in one hand while she feeds, and writing here feels like a necessary part of keeping my brain working.
I thought I would start with a list of things that have made these first few hectic weeks a little easier. I’m not intending to turn this into a baby blog, but as this little one has inevitably dominated the last weeks and months, this is one way to restart. None of these are product placement, sponsored or solicited in any way. These are just the (food-related) things that have been helping. You might notice that this list doesn’t exactly represent a balanced diet (!). Be assured, we are eating fruit & vegetables too, but breastfeeding is an energy-intensive business, so anything that keeps you going is ok in my book. And when you are trying to compensate for sleep deprivation with calories, carbs & sugar are really what you look for.
One of the things I was advised (by mumsnetters) to pack in my hospital bag was a bar of chocolate, and when we were stuck in the delivery room at midnight, still waiting to go to the ward 4 hours after delivering, I was very glad of it. And since then, I have been relying on a few squares of good chocolate during a feed, or in the evening to give my energy a boost.
Fortunately for me, just a couple of weeks before my due date, I entered a competition on Amelia Rope’s Facebook page, and won a 3 month supply of her chocolate! I was a fan of Amelia’s salt-tinged chocolate flavours before. She combines fruit and citrus flavours with good chocolate to produce some delicious bars and little cubes. I am a particular fan of the milk chocolate, lime and sea salt combination – which sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but is completely delicious. The salt and lime balance the sweetness of the milk chocolate, making it mouth-watering. And a square of dark chocolate is the perfect mid-feed pick-me-up.
Having meals in the freezer ready to re-heat is an essential for a new parent. I prepared a few things while on maternity leave – cottage pie, pork ragu for pasta. My parents and in-laws also provided meals, and some friends were kind enough to buy us a delivery from Cook, the frozen meal delivery service. My advice to those who are pregnant: make sure you don’t just prepare red-meat based things. Things like lasagne, cottage pie and chili con carne are easy to make in large quantities and freeze well, but I started to miss vegetables, fish & chicken. And make sure there is some space in your freezer for donated meals as well!
This is an unlikely one, but in the last 6 weeks at home, the hardest meal to get to is lunch. Breakfast can usually be grabbed while my Other Half is still in the house, and dinner is prepared during naps in the day (even if the extent of that preparation is just to defrost something), and usually eaten in shifts in the evening. But there often isn’t time to prepare lunch, even to the extent of making a sandwich. Quiche can be eaten straight from the fridge, and if it contains a good number of veggies, at least comes close to a balanced meal. A piece of fruit to follow and I can feel fortified for the afternoon. See also: pork pies and sausage rolls, but with less balance :-)
Supermarket deliveries have been my preferred option for some time, and this has only become more essential with a baby. I use Ocado, with a fortnightly box of veg from Riverford, and tend to order both from my phone. I also top this up with odds and ends from the shops in walking distance – it’s good to have a reason to get out of the house and take a walk with the pram. As an added bonus, they also deliver nappies :-)
At six weeks in, this isn’t quite so necessary – and in fact, can be a liability – but cake is another thing to grab for a quick energy boost. More importantly, it’s something to have on the afternoons with tea. Not that you will be drinking tea – hard to manage a cup of hot liquid in one hand with a baby in the other. No, the cake is really there for visitors to have when they come to coo over the baby. And as a beneficial side effect, you can scarf the leftovers before heading off to bed, leaving your other half with the baby and a bottle. One of the great presents we received was a cake box from Meg Rivers. This has long been my preferred present for new parents. Most people bring things for the baby, so it’s nice to get something that’s for the parents. Her cakes are made with real ingredients, keep well and are thoroughly delicious.
Over the next few weeks, I am trying to return to cooking and baking a bit more, and will be posting here when I can.
May 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
I sometimes come across this sort of silicone bakeware, and wonder what on earth it’s for (although if it’s as nice as this sunflower one, I don’t worry too much about that). But then I remember financiers. Financiers, or friands, are not something you often come across, but they are a great recipe to know about. Made with egg whites, melted butter, flour, sugar and ground nuts, they are moist little cakes that keep really well.
Financiers are from the French kitchen, and used to be baked in little gold-ingot like bars, which gave them the name. Traditionally, they would be made with brown butter and ground almonds – a rich and somewhat expensive combination which may account for the name. Friands are the antipodean version, less likely to include anything as fussy as brown butter, and more likely to be a carrier for raspberries, blueberries or other fruit flavours.
Another good reason to have a friand or financier recipe on hand is that they are a great way to use up leftover egg whites. Unlike macarons and other egg white recipes that use a meringue base, these don’t require the whites to be whisked to peaks. They only need a little whisking to break them up, and you can easily use 3, 4 or 5 egg whites for one batch of cakes (handy if you’ve been making ice-cream).
Because of the melted butter and nuts, these are quite dense and rich little cakes, that are best baked in small tins. Friand tins are little oval shapes, but mini muffin tins are the perfect size, if you grease them well. You can also use silicon bakeware in lots of beautiful shapes, like this sunflower mould I picked up in Paris. This seems to cook them more evenly, although you also get less of the brown crust. When baked, the outside should be lightly browned, and when cool, just a little crisp. The interior will be rich and dense with the nuts.
They are a great thing to have on hand if you think you don’t want a proper dessert or cake, just something sweet to nibble with tea or coffee at the end of a meal, or as a pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon.
For these sunflower cakes, I wanted to keep the mixture plain – no berries or other decorations, so that the shape of the sunflowers would show up nicely. Instead, I used the traditional French approach and made brown butter, which along with a little vanilla, formed the only flavouring. There will be more on alternative flavours for financiers in a forthcoming post.
Scroll down for more on what’s behind the recipe, including details on brown butter and the role of the egg whites.
Brown butter financiers
- 150g brown butter
- 165g egg whites(5)
- 175g icing sugar
- 50g plain flour
- 100g ground almonds
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
First make the brown butter, as directed below, and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/400F and thoroughly butter your moulds or tins.
Whisk the egg whites gently to loosen them, but not enough to create a froth. Sieve the icing sugar, flour and almonds onto the whites and stir together until combined.
When the butter has cooled but is still liquid, add to the mixture and fold together gently until completely combined and homogenous. If you like, add some vanilla extract or a drop or two of almond extract.
At this stage, you can refrigerate the mixture overnight or for a few days, until you are ready to bake.
Fill the moulds about 80% full, and bake for 8–12 minutes. The timing will depend on the tins you are using – both the material and the size. They are ready when cooked through – test with a skewer – and with toasted brown edges.
Leave to cool for 5–10 minutes and then turn out of the tin while still warm. If using metal tins, you may need to use a knife to ease the cakes away from the sides. Eat the same day if possible – although they will keep for several days in a tin, the texture won’t be quite as good, and you won’t get the same contrast between crisp edge and soft, dense interior.
What’s behind the recipe?
Brown butter is what happens when you cook butter until the water has all evaporated and the temperature rises high enough to toast the milk solids in the fat. This produces a little bit of brown sludge at the bottom of the pan, and a lovely toasty, nutty flavour in the butter. It’s sometimes called beurre noisette, and used as a sauce in some dishes of French cookery.
You may have made brown butter accidentally before, by putting butter into a too-hot pan, and seeing the little brown grains appear. Brown butter, made deliberately, is usually done in a small saucepan, of pale metal so that you can see the browning, with a larger quantity of butter. Melt the butter over a moderate heat.
Once the butter is gets close to 100C the water in the butter will start to boil (about 15% of butter is water, depending on the brand you use). Let this bubbling continue. When the water has all gone, it will stop bubbling, and go quiet. This is when you need to pay close attention, and probably stir occasionally. The milk solids – those white, milky parts that appear when you melt butter – will sink to the bottom of the pan and be the first to brown, so you need to scrape them off and stir them about to make sure nothing burns. You might also start to get a foam on the top of the butter. Once the solids at the bottom are a nice nut-brown, and the whole thing smells nutty, remove it from the heat and pour the whole thing into a heatproof bowl or measuring jug. This will help to stop the cooking and make sure it doesn’t brown any further and start to burn. Most recipes using brown butter, including financiers, will need the butter to be cooled – it will be extremely hot when it comes out of the pan.
Why whisk the egg whites if you’re not going to form peaks?
Financiers don’t need the aeration you get from an egg white whisked into snowy peaks, but the recipes often ask you to whisk them a little. Why? The proteins in egg white attach to each other very well, which is why a really fresh egg broken onto a plate will ‘sit up’, and why it’s so hard to divide an egg white in half, if you’ve ever tried to do that. Whisking the whites just a little helps to break apart the proteins and loosen the whole thing up. This makes it much easier to mix in the other ingredients.
Why do financiers only have egg whites in?
Financiers are a puzzle to me. Here is a little tender cake, that doesn’t have any baking powder in, and doesn’t whisk air in through creaming or whisked egg whites. So what makes it rise instead of being a flat pancake?
My best guess is that the egg whites provide a stretchy protein structure, so that when the water and fat in the recipe heats up, and steam is released, the stretchy egg proteins are there to capture it and keep the bubbles in the final cake. There is very little flour in the recipe, so the egg white proteins are likely to be contributing most of the structure that holds the cake together. Ordinarily, egg whites create quite dry, crisp things, but all those nuts and butter keep things rich here.