Yoghurt for buttermilk and other baking substitutes

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How many types of dairy product are lurking in your fridge right now? Mine usually contains whole plain yoghurt, probably some fruit yoghurt too, semi-skimmed and whole milk and often some creme fraiche. I don’t often buy cream, sour cream or buttermilk, even when a recipe specifically calls for them, as I know I can often substitute something else instead. But understanding which can you substitute and what adjustments to make can be tricky.

One of the many divides between British and American bakers is in our use of dairy, and the ingredients that are easy to obtain. This means that the ingredients called for in American recipes, such as buttermilk, are often a bit harder to obtain in the UK, and vice versa (creme fraiche, for example, is harder to track down in the U.S.). But most of these things can be easily substituted, if you are careful about what you swap it with.

American Baker Alice Medrich wrote a really useful piece for Food52 on when and how to swap dairy products in baking. Her rules of thumb also work for comparing British and American ingredients. When considering the ingredient you want to swap:

  1. Compare moisture content – how liquid is it?
  2. Compare fat content – in baking particularly, the fat is likely to play an important role in the texture
  3. Compare acidity – both for flavour and for rising when paired with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda).

The first thing to note is that there are cultured and uncultured dairy products. This has nothing to do with whether they like opera, and is all to do with whether microbes have been introduced into the milk to help preserve it at some stage.

Uncultured dairy products include milk, cream and half-and-half. Cultured dairy products include yoghurt, creme fraiche, buttermilk and sour cream. You can also get cultured butter and clotted cream sometimes, and more unusual cultured products like kefir and skyr.

The cultured products have been inoculated with bacteria to sour the milk or cream, producing something tangy that will last longer than the uncultured version. The key differences are in the bacteria used, which influences the flavour and the sourness, and how industrial the process is. I’m going to assume that we’re generally talking about products available in the supermarket here. You can also get homemade or more artisanal versions of all of these that will vary more in how they are produced, and perhaps give less predictable results in baking, but potentially with more flavour.

Cultured dairy will generally last longer due to their bacterial content. The deliberately added bacteria and the acid makes it a less hospitable environment for other bacteria and moulds. The higher the fat content, the less prominent the sour flavour will be, as the fat coats your tongue and helps to ease the sour tang.

The other factor is the fat content, which will affect the texture and thickness. The texture of the produce is also affected by milk proteins, which can start to coagulate when the acidity rises, as they do in yoghurt and many soft cheeses. Low-fat dairy products will generally have other things added to thicken it instead of the fat, such as guar gum, pectin and starches.

Uncultured Dairy Products Cultured Dairy Products
Skimmed milk 0.1-0.3% fat Buttermilk 0.2% fat
Semi-skimmed milk 1.7-2% Kefir 3%
Whole milk 3.6-4% Whole plain yoghurt 3.5-6%
Half-and-half (US) 10-18% Greek-style yoghurt 5-9.5%
Single cream (UK) 18-19% Half-fat creme fraiche* 12-14%
Heavy cream (US) 33-40% Sour cream 18%
Whipping cream (UK) 38-40% Creme fraiche 40-41%
Manufacturing cream (US) 40-42%
Double cream (UK) 45-47%
Clotted cream (UK) 60%

There is also a difference between the UK and US approaches to dairy. US cream tends to be lower in fat than the UK. It’s fairly common to buy a pot of double cream in the UK that is spoonable and hardly needs whipping. Heavy cream in the US is closer to UK whipping cream, and will be quite liquid, but will produce whipped cream eventually.

Substitutions:

If you want to make whipped cream, the fat content is important. Less than 30% fat, and it isn’t likely to hold its shape. If you are mixing it directly into a recipe, you also want to aim for a similar fat content if you can.

If a few spoonfuls of cream are called for, for example in a soup or sauce, they can sometimes be left out, or I will often substitute with creme fraiche, which heats up well and can be kept in the fridge for a bit longer.

Cultured products can generally be substituted for each other if the thickness and acidity are similar. Look out for recipes that contain bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). It’s particularly important in these to make sure there is enough acid in the recipe to balance out the soda, as any excess will taste unpleasantly soapy in the final product. If you’re unsure, adding a bit of lemon juice will provide some insurance.

I use the following substitutions a fair bit:

To substitute buttermilk, mix plain yoghurt and milk roughly 50:50. You can also use whole milk, soured with a few drops of lemon juice or white vinegar.

To substitute for sour cream, use creme fraiche, or greek yoghurt sometimes with a bit more acid added.

To substitute for double cream in a sauce or even a chocolate ganache, use creme fraiche. There will be a bit of extra tang, but it will generally be masked by the other flavours. Creme fraiche won’t become whipped cream in the same way though, and half-fat creme fraiche might not behave the same.

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Behind the ingredient: Kosher salt

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If you cook from American blogs or cookbooks, you may have come across recipes that specify ‘kosher salt’. You might have wondered how this is different from other salt, and what on earth is it that makes it kosher?

What is Kosher Salt?

Kosher salt
Kosher salt

In fact, not all kosher salt *is* kosher; it refers most often to koshering salt, i.e. salt for koshering meat, by drawing out the blood. This means that the critical difference between table salt and kosher salt has nothing to do with Rabbis, and everything to do with the shape of the salt grains.

Kosher salt is usually shaped as square or pyramid shapes, instead of the cube-shaped grains of table salt. This is produced either from evaporation (the same process as most sea salt) or by compressing the salt grains to produce flat flakes.

The biggest reason why American chefs love to use kosher salt is that it is much easier to pick up between your fingers and thus gives you tighter control over your seasoning. It sticks to your fingers less than table salt and is easier to sprinkle by hand into an even layer over meat or vegetables. If you’re dissolving the salt into water to cook vegetables or pasta, it makes no difference what you use – table salt is just as good.

How much salt to use

The other effect of the shape of the flakes is that it takes up much more volume for a given weight.

My measurements (on a scale that only measures to the nearest 2 grams):

You can see that 1 teaspoon of kosher salt weighs about half the amount of a teaspoon of table salt, so if you’re using a recipe that calls for kosher salt, you need to use about half as much table salt to get the same effect.

I was really surprised that the sea salt and table salt were a very similar density. Despite having similar sized flakes, the sea salt and kosher salt pack very differently, because of their different shapes (see below). This explains the problem I had with the Hot Bread Kitchen challah recipe (see here) – I had assumed that the sea salt would be similar enough to kosher salt, but in fact I added about twice as much as I should!

Kosher salt
Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Sea salt
Saxa fine sea salt

Which salt to use when:

Sprinkling over meat or veg before cooking – I would use kosher salt or inexpensive sea salt here – it’s easier to distribute it evenly without oversalting things. For meat, it generally makes sense to salt in advance to help draw out water and concentrate the flavour of the meat. This might mean an hour ahead for a steak, or up to 24 hours in advance for a whole chicken or a joint of meat. It has the added advantage of drying out the surface a little, which will help to give you crispy chicken skin or pork crackling.

Table salt
Table salt

Dissolving in cooking water – use fine table salt for this, something cheap. Once salt is dissolved into water, it doesn’t really matter what shape it was in to start with. Bear in mind that it’s particularly important to season water that is used to cook something like pasta, which will absorb the cooking water. For vegetables, you can often get away with seasoning after they are cooked.

Baking – if you want to mix the salt into the dough or batter, then table salt is probably a good choice – you want something fine that will mix in evenly. If you use sea salt or kosher salt, make sure the flakes are nice and fine before mixing in.

Sprinkling over food – this is where those more expensive salts are worth using. Maldon or Fleur de Sel have big, crunchy flakes that add texture to the surface of a crust of bread, the surface of a steak or the top of a brownie. The contrast between the burst of salt from a big, crunchy flake can be really exciting, but is lost if it’s added too far ahead and just dissolves.

Maldon salt
Maldon salt
Fleur de Sel de Guerande
Fleur de Sel de Guerande

More about Kosher Salt:

Serious Eats – Do I Need to Use Kosher Salt

The Kitchn – Kosher salt – where it comes from and why it’s called kosher

 

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Transforming Onions – raw, cooked, pickled and more

 

A brown onion

It’s taken me years to appreciate onions. I thought of them as just something to chop when you were making a stew or spag bol. Then they were for chicken stock – above all, good stock needs the flavour of alliums.

We made a five onion soup at culinary school, pale green with leeks, garlic, onions, spring onions and shallots, and thickened with potato – an exaggerated leek and potato soup, both sweet and savoury – and I started to appreciate the flavour of onions in their own right.

Over time I started to detect when onions were missing, to choose to add them in to keep things balanced. I learnt that I could tolerate raw onions if they were first soaked in vinegar, to remove some of the harshness. In the last couple of weeks I have added extra onions to recipes that didn’t call for them – a carrot filling for an Estonian pie and a Nigel Slater pilaf. An onion sweated in butter is a guarantee of savoury richness for both of these.

Sliced leeks

Onions, and all their brethren, are amazing and versatile ingredients. They have those pungent, tear-inducing chemicals in them that flood out when you cut into them, but when those dissipate, you also get a lot of sweetness and savoury flavour, which make them the most versatile vegetable you can have with you in the kitchen. If you’ve only ever used them when making soups or stews, or if you’re put off by raw onions (as I am), then you’ve got a treat in store.

Behind the recipes – why do we need onions?

Onions are sweet, sugary vegetables, disguised behind a sulphurous attack-force. Cutting or crushing an onion or garlic releases several sulphurous compounds, through the action of an enzyme, that make your eyes water and your breath smell. This process can be slowed down by chilling, the compounds can be washed away, or the enzyme can be deactivated through acid or through cooking. Once these sulphur compounds are out of the way, the sugars in the onion come through, and can create caramelisation with the right cooking. Not all of the onion family have the same compounds in them. The harshest, that cause your eyes to water, are found only in the onions, shallots, leeks and chives. Shallots, red onions, chives and spring onions are all milder in taste than yellow onions and garlic. Spring onions and leeks have more ‘green’ flavours, from the leaves.

Red onions

Ways to prepare onions

Here are some of the ways you can transform onions in the kitchen:

  • Raw – not my preference, although I like the Thomas Keller trick of pouring boiling water over them in a sieve to remove the harshest, oniony notes first.
  • Acidulated – not true pickling, just soaking the raw bits in some vinegar or lime juice keeps the crunch but leaches away some of the eye-watering compounds, making a much nicer salad onion. Bonus: soaking red onion slices in vinegar turns them all pink and lovely. I do this often to add to a Greek salad or a salsa for tacos.
  • Softened/sweated – for a stew or soup, you want to remove the harshest notes, and bring some sweetness, but not too much sugar. Translucency is what you want, and softness to help the flavours fade into the background and form the base flavours. Keep the heat low and stir fairly often. A good puddle of fat helps too.
  • Browned – not the same as caramelised, browned onions are cooked fast and hot, and are good for curries or making a tarka to go on top of dal. To get really nice crispy onions or shallots, good for garnishing Thai salads and many other things, slice very thinly, toss in a little rice flour, and fry in hot oil.
  • Caramelised – these such a useful thing to have around. Their extra sweetness gives a strong base to stand up to other strong flavours: the thick savoury flavour of beef stock in a proper onion soup; a strong cheese in a caramelised onion tart; a counter to the acid in a tomato sauce. Proper caramelisation takes *ages*. Allow 45 minutes to an hour to get them there, and you don’t need to add sugar. But make them in bulk and you can freeze in little portions. Momofuku’s David Chang, via Lucky Peach, has a good method for making them in a large frying pan. I like to use my slow cooker and leave them in there all day.
  • Baked – an underrated vegetable, and one I don’t often think of, is whole onions wrapped in bacon and baked, perhaps with a bit of cream. A brilliant accompaniment to roast chicken.

Roasted onions

  • Roasted – throw wedges around a roasting chicken or joint to create a delicious vegetable, and to massively improve the gravy made from the juices. I can’t remember where I got the idea, but I always roast beef on a layer of thick onion slices, protecting the juices from burning on the bottom during the initial sizzle, and creating deeply caramelised onions which make unbelievable gravy.
  • Pickled – I never think to buy commercial pickled onions – they are always too strong for me. But I have a favourite homemade version from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Their red onion pickles are a bit on the syrupy side, but delicious, and such a beautiful pink colour. Very good on a burger.

If you want a mild onion flavour, use spring onions, shallots or red onions. Or take some of the sting out of the onion by pouring hot water over the chopped onion, or by steeping briefly in vinegar (this works particularly well for sliced red onions, whose colour bleeds out to stain the whole slices fuschia-pink).

When you don’t have time to chop and sweat an onion, use spring onions, scissored into pieces if that’s easier for you than a knife. (And then practice your knife skills on onions when you get a chance – onions are cheap).

How to chop an onion

Chopping onions

First, top and tail the onion, and halve it from top to bottom. When peeling onions, if that outer brown layer will only come away in little shreds, take another layer off the onion. Life is too short, and onions are too cheap, to waste your time chipping off fragments of brown skin.

If you want little squares of onion, take each peeled half and slice in three different directions: start with horizontal slices, parallel to the chopping board. Then vertical slices from stem to root, almost but not quite cutting through. Finally, slice across to create squares.

Sliced red onion

For strips of onion (this is often my preferred cut, if only because it’s so quick to prepare), remove the root end in a wedge from each half. Slice the remainder of the half along the lines from stem to root, starting at an angle to the board, and gradually moving the knife around to be vertical. These slices separate more easily than half-moons cut across the onion, and are a good cut for starting a curry, a stew, or a soup that will be blended later.

Strawberry Shortcakes: Behind the recipe

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Making strawberry shortcakes is a good marker of the start of summer. Shortly after we revamped our garden, about 5 years ago now, I planted five strawberry plants, which due to my inattention, have multiplied and spread many times over. We now have a huge patch of gangly strawberry plants, which bring a lovely glut of fruit at this time of year. We have to share with the pigeons, but now there are so many, I don’t really mind that.

Preserving the flavour and taste of strawberries beyond their short season is always a challenge. Jams and preserves work really well, concentrating the flavour as they cook. You can also make simple preserves by roasting or cooking gently in syrup to create something that will last for several weeks in the fridge.

As for making the most of the fresh ones, strawberries and scones always seem the perfect match to me. A slightly crisp-edged scone acts as the perfect support to thick, whipped (or clotted) cream, which is the ideal partner for strawberries.
Slice and macerate the strawberries in a bare sprinkle of sugar and a drop or two of balsamic, and they will be glossy and sweet and with just enough acid to counter the rich cream.

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The American approach is to make shortcakes – close relatives of the scone, but with a good deal more butter in them, and slightly more sweetened. Like scones, they get their rise from baking powder, and the liquid and dry ingredients are combined at the last stage, and the dough mixed just enough to come together. With the extra fat, they get extra tenderness and richness, so they are bit more protected from overhanding than a regular scone (good news when it comes to toddler-assisted baking!).

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Behind the recipe

There are two levels of why this works. First, the shortcake itself should be barely sweet, a little crumbly, crisp on top and light inside. These contrasts are part of what makes it work. Butter, or in some recipes, cream, coats the flour and gives that crumbly texture, that’s also rich. The baking powder lifts the whole thing up and creates that fluffy, open texture. A high oven temperature gives a nice rise and gets the tops a little brown and crisped. Using an egg helps keep the whole thing together and stops it getting too crumbly, so it will still hold up to being spread with cream, jam and fruit.

The other reason it works is because, in the final assembly, you are putting together lots of exciting contrasts. What makes a dish satisfying is often lots of changes of flavour and texture. They give you the feeling that each mouthful is different, and fool your brain into trying a bit more. Here, the bland, rich shortcake is set against the cool, thick cream and the sweet-sharp acid of the strawberries. Adding a drop or two of vinegar to the strawberries enhances that sharpness, which makes the contrast with the cream more interesting. The crisp and crumbly textures of the shortcake contrast with the smooth, rich feel of the cream, and the soft resistance of the berries.

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RECIPE: Strawberry Shortcakes

adapted from Nigella Lawson in How to be a Domestic Goddess

I adapted this recipe to use the Thermomix or a food processor, rather than the Nigella method, which involved grating the frozen butter. For the original, handmade approach, use Nigella’s link above.
I also converted it to use double cream in place of single, as you are likely to buy some anyway to serve with the strawberries. But single cream or a mixture of cream and milk, would also work fine.

Strawberry Shortcake

Ingredients

  • 325g plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3 tablespoons caster sugar
  • 125g unsalted butter, cold from the fridge
  • 1 large egg
  • 125ml double or whipping cream

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/400F.
  2. Add the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar to the bowl of the processor. Add the butter in chunks.
  3. Pulse the processor /Thermomix until the butter is cut into chunks no larger than peas (I took mine further, until more like breadcrumbs, and they turned out fine).
  4. Beat the cream with the egg, and add almost all of it to the flour - leave a couple of tablespoons of mixture in the cup. Mix gently together with a spatula until all patches of loose flour have disappeared. It’s easier to do this in a separate bowl, but I usually can’t be bothered, and just do it in the Thermomix bowl, working around the blade. If it seems too dry, add a little more liquid. If you can, keep some back to glaze the shortcakes with.
  5. Turn the shaggy, crumbly dough out onto a floured work surface. Fold it over on itself a few times, scraping up the loose and crumbly bits,  until it starts to form a single piece of dough. Using a rolling pin or your hands, flatten it out to about 2 cm thick, and cut into shapes, either using cutters or just dividing it into squares. I think those using cutters tend to rise better. Re-roll the scraps to use up the dough.
  6. Place the shortcakes on a lined baking tray. Brush with any remaining egg and cream mixture (add a splash more cream if there’s not enough). Sprinkle the tops with sugar and bake for 10-15 minutes, until risen and golden on top.
  7. Allow to cool, but they are good served warm.
  8. To serve:
  9. Wash, hull and slice strawberries. Sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of sugar, and add a couple of drops of balsamic vinegar. Leave to macerate for 30 minutes or so.
  10. Whisk double cream until it holds a trail from the whisk (or use whole fat creme fraiche or clotted cream, which didn’t need whisking).
  11. Slice open the shortcakes, and pile on the strawberries and cream just before serving.
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Further reading

Claire Ptak’s recipe for shortcakes with apricots – another sweet-tart fruit that works well with cream and crumbly shortcakes.
The secret to James Beard’s mother’s shortcakes is supposedly a grated hard-cooked egg yolk!
Ruth Reichl’s strawberry shortcake recipe is very simple – just flour, baking powder and cream.

Related content

Using Mainly Spoons – Learning to bake: Scones

Using Mainly Spoons – Soft set strawberry jam

STRAWBERRYSHORTCAKE

 

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Almost instant banana bread

Banana bread

I have a real problem with throwing bananas away. I like them when they are already quite spotted, so for me, the line between perfectly ripe and brown and shrivelled is not that big. Added to that are the bananas that travel around in a bag in case of toddler snacking needs and emerge a bit bruised from the experience, but otherwise edible, and there are often bananas that are a bit past it in our house.

When this happens, I like to make them useful, and make banana bread, or banana muffins. Not everyone enjoys the smell of banana cake. It is certainly distinctive. I’ve read that bananas that ripen on the tree smell quite different, and that there are many varieties of banana, with different scents.

I like to think that baking with a very ripe banana recaptures some of those tropical aromas and complexities. For me, it’s a buttery, fruity smell, reminiscent of toast and apricots and flowers.

Banana bread is a quick bread, meaning that it’s not structured the same way as a cake, and is risen with baking powder or bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) rather than eggs or yeast.

Bananas add a lot to a muffin or quick bread mixture. They bring sweetness, allowing you to cut back on the sugar. They help bind things together, removing some of the role that eggs would usually play. They provide a flavour in their own right, and some added liquid for moisture.

As banana bread is a solution to a fruit problem, I like the recipes to be as quick and easy as possible. I have posted on here before about my go-to banana muffin recipe. I have also tried a banana cake recipe, made in muffin cases, which uses dates as the sweetener, and seems to work well for my toddler.

More recently, I’ve been looking at ways to make banana bread in my Thermomix (or food processor), without getting any other dishes dirty, and having some success.

Behind the recipe

This is a cake made much like a muffin, with oil, not too much sugar, and leavened with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). The usual direction for this sort of recipe is to mix the wet and dry ingredients separately, and then combine them together very gently, even leaving in a few lumps so as not to mix too much.

While this will probably give the optimum texture, a great virtue of these recipes is speed and convenience, so if you can apply a little power with a blender or food processor (I use my Thermomix), it makes these even more feasible on a weeknight (or during naptime).

As a quick bread only needs the ingredients mixing briefly together, it’s important to not overmix using the motor. If needs be, stir the last bit together by hand. It also helps to layer the ingredients in. Start with the liquid ingredients on the bottom, including the bananas, and put the dry ingredients on top, finishing with the flour. This way, the flour is the last to be mixed in. You can also leave the flour not quite combined, or with some flour still remaining around the edges, and fold the last bits in while scraping down with a spatula.

There is no need to mash the bananas, as they will just be pureed with the other liquid ingredients at the bottom of the bowl. Pulse the blades of the blender or food processor so that you don’t mix more than you have to. Then scrape down and combine the last bits with a spatula.

Scrape and pour into a lined loaf tin (I use these Lakeland tin liners for extra speed) and bake for anything from 45 minutes to an hour – it should be risen with no wet mixture remaining.

Almost instant banana bread

Banana bread. Hastily made in the Thermomix, not too sweet. Adapted from @smittenkitchen

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s jacked-up banana bread.

Ingredients:

  • 3 to 4 ripe bananas (230g peeled weight)
  • 75g sunflower oil
  • 150g light brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of (baking) soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 200g plain flour

Add the peeled bananas, broken into pieces to the bottom of the processor bowl. On top, add the sugar, oil, egg, vanilla essense and bourbon/rum. Mix the flour, the bicarbonate of soda, spices and salt in a small bowl and add on top of the other ingredients. This helps to make sure the bicarbonate (baking) soda is evenly distributed, and to make sure there are no lumps in it. There may not be time for these to be thoroughly mixed in otherwise, and lumps of bicarbonate of soda taste revolting.

Pulse or mix on a medium speed until just mixed together. Scrape down the sides and mix any remaining flour in by hand. Pour into a lined 2lb loaf tin and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour at 180C/160C fan. I often use two 1lb loaf tins (as above) and bake for 40-45 minutes.

This will keep, wrapped up, for several days, and freezes really well.

A taste of spring: making fresh ricotta

Ricotta on toast with olive oil and salt

I read a New York Times article some years ago that really annoyed me. It was an edition of food questions and answers, and in the cooking section they posed the question “what should I stop buying and make instead?”. And their answer? Condiments. They actually suggested that the best thing to spend your precious home cooking time on was mayonnaise and ketchup!

The only reason I can think of to make your own ketchup is if you have a serious glut of tomatoes, and have exhausted all the tomato sauce, soup and purée options. But I can’t deny that there is something deeply satisfying about making very basic foods from scratch: things like bread, cheese, or jam. You can delude yourself into thinking you’re some kind of frontierswoman (only with central heating and YouTube). “In the event of an apocalypse”, you think “I can make my own bread! All I will need to find is clean water and ready-milled flour and I’ll be fine!”.   I have made plenty of bread, and quite a few jars of jam, but I hadn’t attempted cheese since cooking school. Smitten Kitchen wrote about making ricotta, and that post, and particularly the video of the company making fresh ricotta in Brooklyn stuck  with me.

Fresh ricotta

Ricotta is a soft, slightly grainy cheese that you may have come across in plastic tubs in the supermarket. It is used to fill pasta, to make flourless gnocchi (called gnudi), and can also be used for lasagne, cheesecakes and more. The supermarket incarnation is fairly uninspiring. Ricotta, meaning recooked, is made from the whey left over from making other cheese. When reheated with acid, more curds can be generated, and ricotta is made by draining these.

However, there is another ricotta, one that doesn’t resemble the authentic original, but something between a cream cheese and ricotta that is fresh, and lemony and makes you want to spread it thickly on toast. By heating not leftover whey, but milk and cream with acid, you can make something that is a hybrid between true ricotta and soft cheese. And by using good quality milk, salting it judiciously, and eating it fresh, you can make something really good to eat, rather than something that is just functional.

But more than the flavour or the (dubious) economy of making your own ricotta, its more worth doing for the science experiment thrill of seeing this cheese emerge from a pan of liquid. This transubstantiation, and the (fairly small) effort involved are more than repaid in fascination and satisfaction with the end result.

Of course, this isn’t something you really need to do every day, but the remarkably small effort involved means you can do it much more regularly than you might think. The best thing to do is spread it thickly on slices of toasted bread, sprinkle with coarse salt and drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil. As Smitten Kitchen enthuses, it’s perfect summer food. But it’s also a way of imagining it’s spring, slightly before it actually appears.

Ricotta curds before draining

Behind the recipe: what happens when you make ricotta?

Why does ricotta form? Most cheese uses rennet, containing enzymes that cause the protein to cling together into curds, so that the liquid whey can be separated and drained off. Ricotta uses acid instead of rennet to create the curds. The acid you use will have some affect on the taste. You can use vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk (Serious Eats details the differences here). Lemon juice is the least precise but most delicious one of these.

You heat the milk, add the acid and then leave it to form the curds. Then gently drain off the whey through a cheesecloth or a a very fine sieve. Leave it for a short time for really soft cheese, let it drain longer for something firmer.

The essential elements are just enough heat, but not too much, and enough acid to start clumping the proteins together. I have had good results using a Thermomix to gently heat the milk, stirring all the time.

The cream is optional: it gives a lovely creamy result, a bit more like cream cheese than true ricotta. You can use single cream or whipping cream if that’s what you have.

Recipe: homemade ricotta

  • 1 litre whole milk
  • 150g double cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice – about half a lemon
  • 1 tablespoon (15g) distilled white vinegar

On the stove:

Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, just until you see the first bubbles appear at the edges, or until it reaches 85-90C on a thermometer. Stir as it heats to prevent the milk proteins catching on the base of the pan. When it is heated, stir in the salt, if using, and then gradually add the lemon juice and vinegar. Stir in very gently, and then leave for two minutes for the curds to form.

Meanwhile, line a sieve or colander over a bowl with a layer or two of damp cheesecloth, or damp paper towels. Spoon or ladle the curds very gently into the cheesecloth and leave to drain for 15-20 minutes. After that time, spoon the ricotta out of the sieve into a container and refrigerate. This will keep for four days in the fridge.

Spooning the ricotta curds

In a thermomix: (Adapted from a recipe on Super Kitchen Machine)

With the butterfly attachment fixed, add the milk and cream to the Thermomix bowl, and heat to 90C on speed 2. Turn off as soon as the 90C light comes on (will take around 10-12 minutes). Set 1 minute/speed stir and add the lemon juice and vinegar through the lid. Turn off and leave to rest for a few minutes to let the curds separate. Gently scoop the curds into a sieve or colander lined with cheesecloth. Leave to drain for 15-20 minutes, depending on how thick you want it.

Things to do with your fresh ricotta:

Spread it on really good toasted bread. Scoop it onto roasted veg as a salad.

Make ravioli or tortellini. Add it to pasta sauce.

Serve as dessert with fruit and drizzled with honey.

Make this excellent Jean-Georges Vongerichten recipe for squash on toast.

UNIVERSITY PRESS

Life-changing pasta advice

Did as I was told with the pasta tonight, following @rachelaliceroddy instructions on all the ways to get it wrong.

Advice on pasta? Really? It’s not that hard. No, it’s not, and really, I’m quite happy with the pasta I already make. Well, everyone eats it, don’t they? And what could I be missing? I know how to boil water, add salt, taste it to see if it’s cooked. What could a cookbook possibly teach me about cooking pasta?

I was browsing through Rachel Roddy’s excellent Roman cookbook ‘Five Quarters’, one of my Christmas books, and came across the inevitable chapter on pasta. Just as I was considering, as I often do, why I don’t make fresh pasta that often, and trying to remember where in the kitchen the pasta maker will clamp to the counter, I saw a page about cooking pasta where she confesses that her husband thought she was making pasta all wrong, and insisted on giving her some pointers.
I thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to pasta, at least as much as the next non-Italian, but then so did she. So I paused to read the directions, and then I put them straight to work.

The advice she repeats is likely things you have heard before, but I think it makes a real difference to actually follow them. So for once I weighed out the pasta, (200g for the two of us) and then measured the water into the pan (2 litres, using the marks on the inside of the pan) and then weighed out the salt (20g). That’s quite a lot more salt than I was expecting. I know that the water is supposed to be well seasoned, but somehow I was never tempted to take a sip of the rapidly boiling water, and made do with a generous shake of the Saxa. I turned out to have the amount of water about right, but needed probably twice as much salt – about a tablespoon for a two litre pan of water.

Then I cooked the pasta until the chalky centre had gone (go any further and my husband can’t tolerate it – something I attribute to his being taught to like pasta by a Roman). I saved a ramekin of pasta water – something I do sometimes, but not consistently. I warmed serving bowls and a large bowl, to mix the pasta in. I added grated parmesan to the pasta first, followed by the ragu, and a dribble of pasta water. Then I tossed the whole thing together and served it.

I find it hard to dislike pasta with homemade ragu, but I do think that this one had a more rounded flavour, and was better for following these directions.

Even when you think you know all there is to know about even simple cooking directions, someone can persuade you to think again, and bring something new to the party.

Starting as I mean to go on with @rachelaliceroddy 's broccoli pasta. Lick-the-bowl-clean good.

Why does this advice work?

When you cook dried pasta, water is absorbed into the pasta and swells and softens the starch. At the same time, some of the surface starch lifts off and dissolves into the water. When you boil pasta in too little water, it takes a long time to come back to the boil (as the cold pasta drops the temperature of the water a long way), and the concentration of the starch in the water is quite high. The starch isn’t really a problem: after all, restaurant kitchens reuse their pasta water for many servings of pasta at a time. But the real problem is that the pasta doesn’t have enough room to move about and can start to stick together in the pan as it cooks. This can mean it cooks unevenly.

Undersalting often makes the difference between good restaurant food and home cooking. It’s easy to assume that a recipe isn’t good, or that something is just a bit underwhelming, when a bit of salt can make all the difference. Because the pasta absorbs a lot of water, properly salting the water allows the pasta itself to be seasoned well, and tossing it with parmesan before the sauce also helps this process. When each bite of pasta is salted well, the taste is very different.

Finally, much has been written about using pasta water in the sauce. The starch left in the water helps add some gloss to the sauce. The extra liquid dilutes the sauce a little and helps it to cling to every groove and ridge on the pasta, something that’s particularly important when you’re using good pasta, made with bronze dies so it has a good craggy edge to it.

Finally, Harold McGee has tried breaking all the rules and cooking pasta in too little cold water – it sort-of works, but is not approved by Italian cooks!

Roasting chicken and salting meat

Roast chicken with vegetables

I’m thinking of a gloomy grey Sunday. Rain pattering on the skylights in the kitchen. The Viburnum outside the window scratching back and forth. The distant rumble of the motorway carrying on the wind. It was the last day of the Christmas holidays, the eve of work beginning again. It felt like a good day to put a roast on the table.

For me, a Sunday roast means dinner, not lunch – prepared in the afternoon and eaten about 6 or 7pm. That was how it always was at home. Sunday afternoons meant mum in the kitchen, making dinner. Gran peeling vegetables and doing the ironing. Dad would probably be in the garden, or engaged in some DIY task. The veg would be peeled and put into a dish of water. The main might be roast chicken, often done in my mum’s old enamel roasting tin, which had a lid with dimples on. It could be roast beef, with slivers of garlic studded into the meat. A leg of lamb was my mum’s favourite, served with jellied mint sauce. But I think it’s the smell of roasting chicken that’s the most evocative. The scent of crisping skin and sizzling fat permeating the kitchen. Steam from the vegetables fogging the windows.

When I roast a chicken, I have a few different approaches I use, none of them very complicated. I might follow Laurie Colwin and sprinkle the top with paprika. I might scent it with a pierced lemon, approximating Marcella Hazan or Nigella Lawson. Or I might use herbs and onion in the cavity. But always, I will sprinkle the whole thing inside and out with salt. And if possible, I’ll do this a few hours before putting it into the oven.

Judy Rodgers’ ‘Zuni Cafe Cookbook’ is probably the best expression of salting a chicken in advance. Her roast chicken bread salad is hard to beat, but it does require a small chicken, and salting a good two days ahead. But why salt in advance at all?

Roast chicken with salty skin

Behind the recipe: salting meat

Recipes for roasting or braising meat often ask you to add salt to it some way in advance of cooking. This might be in the form of a rub or marinade, or just a sprinkling on the surface either a little or a lot of time before it goes into the oven or pot. What is the point of doing this, and is there any advantage to doing it a long way in advance?

Cookbooks will often describe salting in advance ‘to draw out the juices’, especially from cuts like steak and chops. Yes, salting will do this, through a relatively simple process of osmosis, where the concentrated salt on the outside persuades water to come out of the meat cells to dilute it, making the salt concentration more similar to that on the inside of the cells. However, this isn’t the only thing that happens.

As water is drawn out, salt is drawn in, to balance the concentrations. This extra salt inside the meat attacks some of the proteins, breaking them up, and making the solution of salt + protein in the meat more concentrated than the now more dilute brine on the outside.

So now the operation works in reverse, drawing water back in from the outside. So we have both salt and water being drawn into the meat. This doesn’t really change the weight of the meat – the juices being drawn back in came out of it in the first place, and not all of them will go back. But now extra salt has been added to the meat, and the proteins have also been damaged a bit, making the meat a bit more tender, and also less able to squeeze out juices during cooking, as the proteins cook and contract.

Osmosis is not a very fast process, so the further in advance you add the salt, the more likely this is to happen and to penetrate deeper into the meat. Do it too far ahead, or with too much salt and the meat will become overly salty and unpleasant, or the proteins will become too damaged and be dry when cooked.

When it comes to roast chicken (and also to other cuts with the skin, such as pork with crackling) the other benefit is in drying and seasoning the skin. By helping to create a dry surface to the skin, it makes it easier to get the surface temperature hot enough to crisp the skin. When there is water there, the temperature is limited to around 100C, but as soon as all the water is driven off, where there is fat in or under the skin, the temperature can go up and up, which allows the skin to crisp and crackle.

Further reading:

Serious Eats: the truth about brining turkey and the burger lab: salting ground beef

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook – containing Judy Rodgers’ recipe for roast chicken, and lots of other discussion about brining and salting meat in advance.

Smitten Kitchen has also written about the Zuni chicken.

Behind the recipe: How to make Christmas cake

P1000568

A couple of weeks ago I made this year’s Christmas cake. I make my husband’s grandmother’s recipe, although, much to his horror, I do make some adjustments here and there. But it produces a fruit-packed dark cake that we both love, so it always seems worth it. And more than ever now we are a family of three, I enjoy the ritual of digging out the fruit in October, and making the cake, knowing that it promises cosy evenings and feasting to come in a couple of months. Even when all my good intentions of early Christmas shopping and house decorating come to nought, I feel comforted knowing that at least I have a cake stored away, that will make tea times feel festive.

Shauna from Gluten Free Girl wrote a lovely post earlier this year about the ritual of making the same food each week, of having a pattern to the week that everyone recognises. I feel the same way about these annual rituals of cooking. There is great comfort in a cooking ritual that evokes a specific time of year: marmalade in January, strawberries in June. But for a Brit, Christmas is the one time of year that we celebrate with specific festive foods. Americans have Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl to mark their cooking year. With Hot Cross Buns seemingly available all year round, Christmas is the last food feast in the calendar, even if it does seem to start in September.

When making a fruit cake for Christmas, there are certain rituals to the process that seem arcane. It seems to be a very complicated recipe, and it’s tempting to shortcut as many steps as possible. But why is the process so peculiar, compared to baking a straightforward sponge cake?

The main thing to remember about fruitcake is that it is (or should be) more fruit than cake. And dried fruit needs a few things to bake well: to be moist enough not to dry out; to be cooked slowly so that all the sugar in it doesn’t scorch; and to be suspended in a cake batter firm enough so that it doesn’t all sink to the bottom when baked. Here are some of the steps you might find in your Christmas cake or fruit cake recipe, and why they are worth doing:

Soaking the fruit

Many recipes start with measuring the fruit, and soaking it overnight (or for even longer). This plumps up fruit like raisins and currants, and the liquid they take in here will help keep the cake moist as it sits. And if you soak in brandy, rum, whisky or another spirit, it will also help to preserve the cake.

Wrapping the tin in brown paper

Using all my Blue Peter skills on the cake tin for the fruit cake

This is what really says Christmas to me. The idea when lining the tin with multiple layers of paper, and then wrapping newspaper or brown paper around the outside is to insulate the tin, and prevent the outside from browning, and ultimately scorching, before the centre of this dense cake is cooked through. You may also be asked to cover the top with paper, to prevent it browning too far.

Brushing/soaking with brandy/rum

This one definitely depends on how far in advance you’ve made it, and how often you remember to do this. It should serve two purposes – to help keep the crumb moist, and to further preserve the cake, and prevent any mould from forming. You should also make sure you wrap the cake well each time you do this, so that the moisture is kept in.

Wrapping in marzipan

So it’s been baked, and soaked, and wrapped, and it’s nearly Christmas. Just time to ice it. But first you have to cover it in marzipan and then let it dry out?? This is really a royal icing thing. The marzipan is there to stop the dark fruit of the cake from bleeding through the pristine white icing. And letting it dry out prevents oils from the almonds from leaking into the icing.

I’m not a huge fan of royal icing, or of shop-bought marzipan that is so sweet it makes your teeth ache. But I could be persuaded by Nigel Slater’s homemade almond paste with orange zest, and golden icing sugar icing.

Here is the recipe I use. The dried fruit can be varied, as long as you keep to the same weight. I like to keep a base of raisins and currants for their dark, rich flavours, but you may prefer paler, sweeter fruits: sultanas, figs and apricots chopped small, dried cherries. I have to confess that I no longer whisk the egg whites separately – I just couldn’t see how the air would survive folding in with the fruit. Instead I mix the whole eggs into the creamed butter and sugar. 

Recipe: Pendleton Christmas Cake

PREP TIME: 1 hr plus soaking

TOTAL TIME: 5 – 6 hr

This recipe – for 9 inch round tin (or 8 inch square) – 20cm square.

Ingredients:

  • 450 gram Raisins
  • 450 gram Sultanas
  • 340 gram Currants
  • 110 gram Candied Peel — finely chopped
  • 110 gram Glace Cherries — halved
  • 75 ml Brandy
  • 75ml orange juice
  • 110 gram Almonds, Blanched — shredded
  • 285 gram Flour, Plain
  • 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
  • 1 tsp Mixed Spice
  • 1 pinch Nutmeg — grated
  • 225 gram Butter
  • 225 gram Sugar, Soft brown
  • 1 tbsp Black Treacle
  • 6 Eggs
  • 55 gram Plain Chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
  • 1 tsp Warm water

Combine the fruit with the brandy and the orange juice. Leave to soak overnight.

Line tin with 2 thicknesses of baking parchment and tie a band of brown paper around the outside of tin that comes 2-3 inches above the rim.

Set oven at 300F/150C/130C fan or gas mark 3.

This recipe is in three parts: the cake mixture, the fruit, and the whisked egg whites. Each part gets a separate portion of the flour mixture until they are all combined at the end.

Sift flour, salt and spices together and divide into 3 portions. Mix one portion with the prepared fruit and nuts (especially coat the cherries well in flour).

Cream the butter in a mixer, or with a handheld mixer, then add the sugar and beat well until fairly light and fluffy (at least 3-4 minutes), then stir in black treacle. [To measure the black treacle, take the lid off the tin and stand it in hot water for a few minutes – this makes the treacle more liquid and easier to measure. Also, oil your measuring spoon with a little vegetable oil before scooping out the treacle- this will help the treacle to slide off the spoon]. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, or over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir in the melted chocolate.

Separate eggs, and whisk yolks together until slightly thickened, and add to butter mixture alternately with second portion of flour. Mix gently, so as not to overwork the flour and make the batter tough.

Fold the 1st portion of flour (mixed with fruit and nuts) into the cake mix.
Dissolve bicarbonate of soda in the warm water and stir gently into the mixture.

Whisk the egg whites until holding very soft peaks and fold into the cake mixture with the third and final portion of flour.

Turn cake mixture into prepared tin, smooth top with palette knife and brush with a little tepid water to keep cake soft while cooking. Put cake into oven and bake at least 3 and up to 4.5 hours. After the first hour, place a folded square of baking parchment on the top to reduce browning (this can go on from the beginning, but then tends to stick to the mixture).

When cake has been in the oven about 1.5 hours, turn cooker down to 290F (145C) or Mark 2. At the end of cooking time (or after about 3 hours) test with a skewer to see that it comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. Leave in tin to cool for 30 minutes then turn out carefully on to wire rack.

When cold wrap in several sheets of greaseproof paper and store in completely airtight tin. Store for at least one month. Will keep for a year or more. Cover with almond paste two weeks before needed and ice one week later.

More about making fruit cake, and some recipes:
BBC Food Fruit cake
Nigel Slater’s Christmas cake
Felicity Cloake on her perfect Christmas cake

This much I know: what I’ve learned about cooking

Bourke street semi-sourdough

As much as we like to pretend that cooking is a matter of following recipes, and obeying instructions, there is a huge amount of experience that builds up as you cook. Knowing how things should look, smell or feel, based on having done it before is what separates the ‘experienced’ cook from the novice, and allows you to question instructions when you don’t feel they are right. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about cooking (so far):

  • Recipes always underestimate the amount of time you need to cook onions for. Go with how they look not how long they’ve been cooking for.
  • Bread is much more forgiving than it seems, and so incredible rewarding. You don’t need to follow all the rules, but you do need to understand a bit about yeast and about gluten to work out which ones you can break. No-knead, hand kneading, using a mixer, long rise, short rise, sourdough and commercial yeast: find a recipe that suits you and go from there.
  • Cook what you like to eat. You’re never going to put the effort and attention into something that you’re a bit unsure of in the first place. Find recipes that you would immediately order in a restaurant, and make them for yourself. Don’t make the things you’re lukewarm about, even if everyone else raves about them.
  • Find cookbooks where you share the palate of the writer. I know that Nigella and I disagree about seafood. I know that Skye Gyngell is much more fond of capers and olives than I am. Everyone has preferences, and knowing if you share the tastes of the writer is a good guide to whether you’re likely to cook a lot from the book. Libraries are a great way of trying out cookbooks before buying them.

A good deal of chopping for this afternoon's cooking, so time to get the good knife out

  • A big, sharp kitchen knife is essential. Get one a bit larger than you think you need. Learn how to use it properly. Keep it honed with a steel, and get it sharpened occasionally. It makes everything easier.
  • Seasoning needs to be done throughout if you can. Always taste towards the end to see if it’s right. If it tastes flat, or uninteresting, it almost certainly lacks salt. It may look like a lot to add, but it’s likely still less than the same meal bought at the supermarket. But seasoning is not just about salt: use pepper, lemon juice, vinegar, a pinch of sugar, a scrape of nutmeg. I keep a pepper grinder that contains black peppercorns and allspice berries for seasoning meat, greens and bechamel sauces.
  • Remember Julia Child’s maxim – never apologise. If you missed a step, or substituted an ingredient, there’s a good chance that the only person who will know is you. Don’t tell them what happened, just present it with confidence. But if it doesn’t taste good, by all means apologise, and offer to make something else!
This post was prompted by the Blogging U Writing 101 course, which asked me to make a list in today’s blog post. I’m trying this out as a way to get me back to writing (although not necessarily posting) every day.
This list was also inspired by Licked Spoon’s excellent list of 10 tips for cooking smart, which you should definitely check out.