Baking with jam

Strawberry jam

I have a bit of jam fetish. At the present moment, my fridge contains homemade strawberry jam, marmalade and lemon curd, as well as bought apricot and lingonberry jams. In the cupboard is more marmalade, as well as Christine Ferber’s Mirabelle, more strawberry jam and apple butter. So I keep an eye out for recipes that show off jam and help me to deplete my stock. One great use is to make a Victoria sandwich. Here the sweet cake and the bland cream form a perfect contrast with a fruity jam. But I don’t make a Victoria sponge very often, because it needs to be eaten the same day, and with two of us in the house, that’s a tall order. It’s useful to have some recipes for using up jam on hand, whether to use up a jar, or to show off a good pot of the homemade stuff (if you’re not into eating it with a spoon!).

Here I have gathered together four different takes on the idea of a jam bake, contrasting different types of pastry or dough with a jammy centre.

Jam tarts

The classic route is a simple jam tart. This is one of those simple, classic recipes that needs all of the ingredients to be impeccable – it can be done cheaply and be ordinary, or done with care and quality, and be delicious. I like Dan Lepard’s recipe that bakes the tart cases blind, and then boils the jam separately before filling the cases, avoiding the problem of jam boiling over and cementing the tarts into the tins).

Greengage jam tarts

 

Jam scones

I’ve come across two recipes that use jam along with something between a pastry and a scone dough. The first was these walnut jam ‘scones’ from LA baker Zoe Nathan. Scones is a bit of a misnomer, as the dough is rich with butter, along with ground nuts. In fact, it’s so rich that you need to freeze the shaped dough before baking so that it will keep its shape in the oven. But what you get for all that butter is a really delicate, crumbly texture around the jam, so the central puddle of jam almost holds the whole thing together. Also, freezing the dough means that you can bake them in small quantities at a time and eat them fresh.

Hazelnut jam scones

Jam thumbprints

The second variation on this theme is a recipe for Linzer thumbprint cookies that appeared in Yotam Ottolenghi’s column a few weeks ago. Here he specifies something between a shortbread and scone dough, flavoured with citrus zest, fennel seeds and spices, and adding crunch with flaked almonds in the dough. I made the ones below with lingonberry jam and lemon curd – the lemon worked particularly well with the fennel seeds.

Ottolenghi Linzer thumbprint cookies

 

Jam crumble bars

Finally, using the soft set strawberry jam in the last post, I made a recipe from Kim Boyce’s brilliant book ‘Good to the Grain’, which showcases different grains and flours. This is a shortbread base, made with rye flour, topped with a good layer of jam, and then covered in a rye and oat crumble topping. Although the crumble was a bit too crumbly for me – I would probably add a spoonful of liquid next time to create bigger crumbles – this was delicious. The toasted, round flavour of the rye contrasted beautifully with the sweet jam. She suggests apple butter as a winter version, and I think that would be delicious too.

Strawberry crumble bars from @KimBoyceBakes recipe - using my homemade jam

 

 

Looking back at January

January snow

The snow coming down this morning has reminded me to look back at the first month of the year. January was a funny old month. A long Christmas break made it seem just a little shorter than normal, as did the extra-mild weather in that first week. But then we reverted, first to a bit of snow, and then to good old English rain and cold. Oh joy.

Parkrun 26 Jan

The resolutions I made are still broadly intact. I’ve been a pretty constant attendee at Parkrun. I missed one day of 750 words writing (a dinner party where we didn’t get back until after midnight), although I still need to figure out how to filter through the nonsense for things that might appear here on the blog.

The dinner diary has faired less well, with some serious gaps. Dinner has been fairly haphazard, a victim of both of our changing schedules, and we’ve eaten out a fair bit.

January is the best month for citrus fruits, because they are in season, but also because those clean, sweet-sharp flavours are just want January needs. I ordered Seville oranges with my veg box, and made marmalade with them, as well as candied peel with the rest of the skins.

Bergamot

I also came across bergamots in Gelupo, and took one home to experiment with. I decided on madeleines from a Stevie Parle recipe, and although they came out well, I would have had a tough time telling it was bergamot in there, and not something else.

Bergamot madeleines - finishing off batter from the weekend

There was also some brilliant Scandinavian pastries from Signe Johansen’s book Scandilicious Baking. These twists of cardamom-scented dough with an almond cream filling and crunchy sugar crystals on top are part croissant, part Danish pastry, part doughnut. I froze them all, and have been ekeing out the supply, taking one to work every now and then for a mid-morning pick-me-up. Some of my baking makes it to work to share, but not these 😉

Cardamom almond twists from @scandilicious baking.

I’ve also got back in touch with my RSS reader (currently using Reeder on both iPohne and iPad) and read some great pieces by food bloggers this month:

I came across the blog ‘Playing with fire and water’ when it was featured in January’s Saveur magazine, and I promptly devoured a stack of posts in a trance. It’s the perfect combination of scientific, exploratory, adventurous and beautiful. Then she wrote about the back story to that feature on her blog, and the story it was originally going to be, of her kitchen remodel, and it was like opening a treasure chest. And it’s a beautiful kitchen to boot.

Both Jenny Rosenstrach and Adam Roberts had funny, honest, helpful writing advice this month. I found them both inspiring, as I continue to struggle with getting posts up and onto this blog.

Resolutions

Looks a bit warm for a run

The New Year is not a great time to try changing your life. You’re coming off the back of a series of unusual, break-from-the-routine days. Days filled with food, and travel, and spending time with people you don’t often see. You’ve been watching sentimental TV, loading up on more carbs than you thought possible, and generally separating yourself from the daily grind as much as you can. This is a bad state in which to try and make committments to change your daily routine. The circumstances are strange, and unrepeatable (at least until next year). It’s almost inevitable that you will try and over-reach and swing the pendulum too far the other way.

So, when you’re tempted to start thinking about resolutions, it’s definitely a good idea to revisit Mr. Merlin Mann, and a great post about New Year’s Resolutions:

“I’ll go further and say that the repeated compulsion to resolve and resolve and
resolve is actually a terrific marker that you’re not really ready to change anything
in a grownup and sustainable way. You probably just want another magic wand.
Otherwise you’d already be doing the things you’ve resolved to do. You’d already
be living those changes. And, you’d already be seeing actual improvements rather
than repeatedly making lists of all the ways you hope your annual hajj to the self-
improvement genie will fix you.”

He talks in this, and in a previous podcast, about Fresh Starts and Modest Changes, instead of resolutions. Doing something that’s achievable, and that you care about. Not expecting to transform into a new person overnight. And not getting discouraged when you fall off the wagon. You will. The first pancake in the batch will always suck. What matters more is getting comfortable with the idea that you will fail, and continuing to try anyway.

I am bad at resolutions at any time of year. Blogging, running, photographing, writing – all these things, increasingly captured in unflinching digital detail, testify to my ability to get to around 4–6 weeks of a habit before falling off the wagon again. This pattern is now so obvious, it’s getting very hard to ignore.

Still, ever the optimist, I have started again, with the New Year, and the blank sheet of digital paper it offers, to try a number of habits I have tried before, that I have seen benefits from, and see how long I can keep them going:

1) Run 5km with parkrun every Saturday. This is a committment to turning up at a specific time and place, which is always easier to keep. In practice, it hopefully means I also make an effort to run at least once in the week, as the thought of facing 5km without having done anything in the previous week is a daunting one.

2) 750 words, written every day on 750words.com. I’ve kept this one a few times before – and a couple of times have completed an unbroken month. It’s hard though. I find it most effective when I do it in the morning before work, but not being a morning person, this is a struggle. And if I miss that window, I often forget until the very last thing at night, when I’m climbing the stairs, and that’s a recipe for stumbling onwards and into bed. Still, the great thing about 750 words is that you don’t score your day until you’ve reached 750 words, and that it only operated from midnight to midnight – you can’t catch up on your words with twice as many the next day. Once the day has finished, that’s it. You can’t rewrite the past. You can only write again today.

3) Keep a dinner diary for every day. This idea comes from ‘Dinner: A Love Story’. I have tried doing weekly meal planning many times before, and it never even makes it to the end of the same week. However, this committment is very simple: by the time I leave for work in the morning, I need to have written down in a notebook what we will have for dinner that evening, and I need to have done whatever necessary to get it started. That might mean simply removing something from the freezer to defrost, or noting down which ingredients I need to pick up on the way home. But a committment like that makes it easier for me to consider how to best use what I have in the house, without resorting to takeaway or pasta again, just because I’m too tired to think.

These are the simple things I’m going to try to do. I hope they will improve a number of aspects of my life, and help keep some things in order. But it doesn’t matter if it lasts or not. All I can do, each day, is try again for today. You can’t do anything about yesterday. It either worked or it didn’t; it sucked or it worked. All you can work on is today. So do that.

Egg whites, meringues and macarons

Meringue

Updated: now with links updated

You can do so many things with even a small amount of egg white. As they are the best ingredient for capturing air, you can expand even a single egg white into a bowlful of foam. There’s nothing much to egg whites – they are just water plus some proteins. The part that makes them so useful is the properties of the protein. After it has uncoiled a little, it forms a network that traps air bubbles really well.

Keeping egg whites

Very few people outside the catering and restaurant industry seem to know how stable egg whites are. If you separate eggs and use the yolks, you can put the whites into a clean container, cover with cling film and store in the fridge for weeks, even months. You can also freeze them without any problem. Just be sure to defrost them carefully – you can easily cook them by accident if you microwave frozen egg whites!

Working with egg whites

Macarons - 2
There are a lot of legends surrounding egg whites. You do need to keep any fat away from them if you want to whip them up. That means that glass and metal bowls are best – plastic ones aren’t a good idea. Things that help: a little bit of acid works well – a couple of drops of lemon juice, or a pinch of cream of tartar. If you don’t do these things, the egg whites will still increase in volume, but won’t reach quite the same heights of stiff peaks.

Many recipes with whisked egg whites require stiff peaks. If you whisk too far, however, the egg whites will break up into little lumps as you fold them into something else. Both the acid and copper, if you use a copper bowl, will create a stable foam that takes longer to reach this pebbly stage.

When working egg whites into a thick batter, like a cake batter, you can use a portion of the egg whites to loosen the batter first. Just take a large spoonful of the egg whites and stir into the batter without worrying about the air. The liquid in the egg whites will loosen the batter enough to make it easier to fold in the rest and preserve the

Meringues

Adding sugar to egg whites stabilises the foam. Once sugar has been added to a meringue mixture, you can beat it for a long time, and it will just get stiffer. If you’re piping the meringue, or adding other ingredients (such as ground almonds for macarons de Paris), you want the mixture to be as stiff as possible so it will hold up when the other ingredients are mixed in. Meringues can be spooned or piped onto parchment paper for baking.

Meringues are intensely sweet, so it is nice to add a bitter or toasted flavour to contrast with it. Toasted nuts and caramel create complicated, toasted flavours that can make the perception of sweetness less acute, by making it less simple.
Coffee and brown sugar meringues temper the sweetness of white sugar. Adding a thick bland filling based on true buttercream, or perhaps on barely sweetened whipped cream, will also contrast with the sweet meringue.
I like an Alice Medrich recipe that combines dark chocolate, ground in a food processor, with stiff meringue. These are piped in small peaks and baked to give a crisp meringue cookie, with bursts of chocolate flavour.

Macarons

Pistachio macarons
Ms Humble has the best guide to macaron making – in a series of completely comprehensive posts, she goes through every possible hint and tip you could know about. (She also has awesome science cookies posts).
In my own experience, it can be hard to get the ideal shape and texture, but almost every macaron is worth eating, even those that don’t look too beautiful.

Pistachio macarons

You need to make a really thick meringue mixture, so it will hold after folding in the almonds, and while you’re piping. However, too much air will mean a more grainy surface and you won’t get such a smooth skin forming on the surface. You need to dry them a little before they are baked to get that smooth skin. Ms Humble has lots of ideas about the much harder task of getting something that’s crisp on the ouside, soft on the inside, and neither hollow nor sticking to the sheet.

(Below are a pistachio macaron from Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester on the left, and my attempt on the right).

More interiors

Coconut macaroons are much easier – you make a stiff mixture with them, cooking the mixture a little in the saucepan before spooning onto a baking sheet. Here, the sticking power of the protein is much more important than its foaming properties. David Lebovitz has a nice recipe for coconut macaroons.

Cake baking – more cake foundations

In the last post, I looked in detail at creaming the butter and sugar, the starting point for many cakes. This post follows what happens next – adding the eggs, flour and then baking.

Fairy cake inside

I found a great description of what happens in a cake in Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Cake Bible:

“Ingredients fall into two categories: those that form and strengthen the cake structure and those that weaken it”.

The flour and eggs provide the protein that holds the cake structure up, and stop it from collapsing into a pancake. The fat, sugar and leavening all weaken the structure in different ways, making the cake tender and soft instead of tough and chewy. The balance between the two sides is important for capturing the air that makes cakes soft and light.

Adding eggs – what happens when it curdles

Almost as soon as I put the last post up, someone asked what happens if the mixture curdles. I have looked into this problem before – most people seem to say it can be avoided, perhaps marginally reduces the volume of the final cake, but if it does happen, you can carry on without problems.

But what was unclear was what caused it to curdle in the first place – was it really not enough creaming, or something else?

Curdled mixture with eggs

When the mixture curdles, what you see appearing are lumps of fat and sugar, surrounded by a thin watery liquid. The clearest explanation I found came from Shirley Corriher in ‘Bakewise’. She describes this as a:

“switch from the the water-in-oil emulsion that you want to an oil-in-water emulsion”.

This probably only makes sense if you know what an emulsion is. An emulsion is simply one liquid suspended in another. In this case, when you start to add the eggs, you are aiming for little droplets of the water from the eggs, suspended through the fat-and-sugar mixture that is already there. At some point, the liquid from the eggs can overwhelm the amount of fat, causing the bubbles of water to all join up and become the main part of the mixture – the continuous phase, as it’s called.

To prevent this happening, you need to ensure that the fat and sugar are able to hold as much liquid as possible – which means soft, but not melted. You also need to add the egg very gradually, so that it doesn’t overwhelm the mixture. This is the same principle as adding oil to mayonnaise – go slowly and incorporate each bit before you add some more.

Finally, the solution once it has curdled – which it might well do – is to stop beating it and add some flour. This will absorb the excess liquid that’s starting to pool, and shift the balance back again.

With flour added

Speaking of Shirley Corriher, this is a brilliant excuse to link to my favourite food science programme, Good Eats:
Good Eats: A Cake on Every Plate

Shirley appears at about 4m30 (disturbingly extolling the virtues of cake flour, which you can’t get in the UK because it’s chlorinated, and the EU aren’t big fans of that idea).
Alton also talks about creaming and bubbles at about 8m30. He also has kick-ass flames painted onto his KitchenAid mixer.

Adding flour

Once the eggs are in, the final step is to add the flour, and any liquid that might be called for. These are often added in alternate batches, so that the mixture gets neither too stiff nor too runny as they go in – either might deflate the air.

An often neglected step is to thoroughly sift the flour and baking powder together. This isn’t necessary if using self-raising flour, but when adding baking powder, there is always the risk that small lumps of leavener will persist in the batter, and produce large ugly holes in the final cake. If you really want a fine texture, sift two or three times before it goes into the batter.

The other important thing when you add the flour is to stop folding or stirring as soon as the flour has disappeared into the mixture – don’t mix any more than you need to. As soon as the flour makes contact with the liquid in the eggs, and any added liquid like milk, it will start to make gluten. The more you mix at this point, the longer and stronger the gluten will become, and the tougher your cake will be.

Baking

The final point is on baking. The balance here is between allowing the leavener time to work and expand, and setting the egg and flour proteins in a structure that will hold the air. Bake at too high a heat, and the leavener might not have had time to work before the batter sets, making a more dense cake with a closer texture. Bake at too low a temperature, and the gas might bubble to the surface and disperse, and so be lost that way. A medium temperature will set the batter at the right point, and bake through evenly without making the surface too dark and brown.

An alternative method – the two stage approach

When consulting Rose Levy Berenbaum, I discovered that she actually doesn’t recommend creaming at all. Her favoured approach is a different one completely. She combines the flour, sugar and fat together with a little egg, and beats thoroughly to incorporate air. Then she adds the remainder of the egg, and other liquid in batches.

This approach takes a different route to the issues above. By combining the fat directly with the flour, it can be coated to prevent the liquid getting at the protein and forming gluten. The flour-sugar-fat mixture can still hold air, so the creaming still generates volume. And the eggs are added only once the flour is already there to absorb liquid, so there is no risk of curdling.

I haven’t tried this approach more than once or twice, but I will be trying it out alongside regular creaming to see what effect it has. Watch this space.

Creaming – the foundation of cake making

Baked until golden

Cakes are demanding, and learning to make a good cake needs more than a recipe. So many little details are important. One of the essential details, at least for most British cakes, is beating the butter and sugar until truly pale and fluffy – creaming them together. If you’re making a Victoria sponge, a layer cake or a cupcake, you almost always start by creaming together the butter and sugar.

What is creaming?

For a long time I didn’t understand creaming at all. The recipe phrase is usually ‘cream the butter and sugar together, or ‘beat until light and fluffy’ or ‘beat until it turns a shade paler’. The big problem with these directions is that they don’t convey the change you need to see. You start off with a greasy paste of butter and sugar, but end up with something more like slightly yellowed whipped cream instead of butter.

Creamed butter and sugar

I only really got creaming when watching a demonstration by Alice Medrich, an American baker and chocolatier. She was making her Tribute cake, a layer cake of featherlight chocolate sponge with whipped chocolate ganache filling and a smooth, shiny chocolate glaze. She left the mixer running for a good five minutes when creaming the butter and sugar – much longer than I had expected.

Think about it this way instead: most of the frosting that is now applied in towering heaps to American cupcakes is made of this same mixture. They tend to use icing sugar instead, so the texture is even smoother, but the volume and the fluffy texture are the things you’re aiming for.

Why is creaming important in making cakes?

Cake texture

The structure of a cupcake is a foam, a web of flour starch and egg proteins, with many tiny bubbles. The batter you end up with is quite delicate, with just enough connection between the ingredients to hold the all-important air in there. This is the biggest difference between a sponge and other types of cake.

Marrying butter and sugar is a task at once completely simple and immensely complicated. It is the foundation of cake bakery, the structure upon which everything else stands. Build it carelessly, and the rest of the structure may wobble and fall. Of course, you can insure yourself against these errors with other supporting structures, but when you want to move on to the virtuoso pieces that really depend on the foundation, that strip everything else back, you will find it hard.

What is happening when you cream together butter and sugar is that the sugar crystals are helping to create bubbles in the fat as they are beaten. Air is what creaming is all about. Beating faster and longer creates more and more bubbles, and creates a finer texture. Any time you introduce bubbles of one thing into something else, it will become more opaque and paler. This is true of vinaigrette, of hollandaise, of whisked egg whites and of creamed butter and sugar. All the little bubbles start to interfere with the light, bouncing it around more and making it look paler.

How do you cream butter and sugar for sponge cakes?

Hannah Glasse in 1774 described the final state as a ‘fine thick cream’. She suggested that using your hand, this should take an hour. Another 19th Century book suggests it is “the hardest part of cake making” and you should have your manservant do it.

In the absence of a man-servant, a handheld electric mixer or a stand mixer like a Kitchenaid makes this much, much easier. With a small quantity it can be done by hand, but expect a decent workout. You need the mixture to change colour – as the air is incorporated, the bubbles make the mixture look paler. The texture also becomes much fluffier.

Creamed butter & sugar

When you’re creaming butter and sugar together, it’s more or less impossible to mix for too long. You at least need the mixture to become one shade lighter. By mixing it for long enough, it should be possible to make it turn almost white, as the sugar crystals introduce more and more air into the fat. All of this isn’t really conveyed by the simple words ‘cream the butter and sugar’.

In a follow up post, I’ll talk about the subsequent steps in making a sponge cake, which follow on from the creaming step.

What’s missing from a recipe

Last week I made pistachio gelato (post coming soon), a type of recipe I had not tried before. It frustrated me because it included guidance to remove from the heat “when the mixture approaches a simmer”, but no explanation of why this specific heat was needed, nor what would happen if you let it actually simmer. I like to know why I am doing what I’m doing, and in this case, the information was missing.

This is a subject that has been occupying me for some time. The current standard format for recipes was developed during the 19th Century by domestic cookery writers like Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton. They were the first to write a separate list of ingredients, followed by the method. Before that, the instructions would be very brief, intended as a reminder for those who had already learnt about cooking from their mother or as an apprentice to a cook.

So Hannah Glasse, writing The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy in 1774, could write this recipe for tart pastry:

One pound of flour, three quarters of a pound of butter; mix up together and beat well with a rolling pin.

Recipes like this were never intended to be a replacement for the teaching of cookery. They are still a very limited format. However, they are a popular one, and virtually standardised over the past 100 years, so that most people recognise a recipe layout if they see one, and know what to expect. They also work fairly well as a compromise – something that can be reproduced easily in many different media, and something that strikes a balance between too much and too little information.

However, as a teaching tool for learning to cook they definitely err on the side of too little information. Worse, because they form the main body of most cookbooks, it would be natural for those learning to cook from a book that everything you need to know would be contained in them. This is very far from the case.

It is hard to find information on which parts of the recipe are important, and which are more flexible. Where is it safe to deviate and where is it not? To compound the problem, few experienced cooks know which parts of a recipe are most important to follow. If you always follow recipes, how would you know what happens if you don’t? Or how to fix it if the recipe turns out to be wrong?

What is missing from most recipes is the context-sensitive techniques that allow you to exert your own judgement about the recipe. The understanding you need to decide if something is done, if it has gone wrong or if you should add more or less of something. By implying that the recipe contains everything, we remove people’s capability to make the adaptations that are always necessary, because the circumstances in which we cook are always unique.

In the next few posts, I am going to try and pick out the parts of a recipe that are missing, the bits to pay attention to, and those you can be more relaxed about. Hopefully, this sort of information can then be applied to any similar recipe you come across, rather than being specific to the one you’re looking at. And that sort of knowledge should be more enduring.

Cooking is about failure

Jamie Oliver's Beetroot cake
A beetroot cake that was completely inedible - all of this went in the bin

Cook from recipes, and you will fail. Probably not all the time, but at least some of the time. This is what no one wants to say. Recipes are an archaic format, the agreed upon least-worst option for print, but they can’t tell the whole story. Cooking is a craft, and we fool ourselves if we think that everything that needs to be said can be conveyed in a 300 word recipe.

The illusion of the printed recipe, and of the celebrity chef, is that as long as you have the recipe, you should be able to perfectly recreate the dish. Anyone who has cooked knows that this isn’t the case. You can follow a recipe absolutely to the letter and still not produce what was intended.

Julian Barnes conveyed some of this frustration in ‘The Pedant in the Kitchen‘. “How big is a lump?”, he asks. But it is not just jargon that we need to look out for. Some basic techniques have to be assumed; if everything was described in the detail necessary for an absolute beginner, then every recipe would run to five pages.

Beyond the vagaries of language, we seem to find it hard to accept the idea that cooking is a craft, and the skill is in the hands of the cook. Cooking, by its nature, is varied and improvisational. If I cook your recipe, in your kitchen, with your pan, I will still produce something that is different to yours. Just as one blacksmith or one carpenter will not produce the same product as another, so cooking ultimately depends upon the cook. And some parts of cooking can only be learned by experience, by looking, feeling, tasting and smelling at each stage, and building up a set of memories to refer back to.

That is the pleasure of cooking as well as its frustration – it’s never the same twice, no matter what you do. The only way to learn is to cook, from books, with a teacher, with an app or from a TV show. I think we can go beyond recipes and offer help in all sorts of formats to those learning something new, or improving their cooking. Ultimately, you should do as Julia Child did: “no matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologise … learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

Home cooking and changing the world

A group of nine chefs, including Ferran Adria of El Bulli (but perhaps not Heston Blumenthal) put their names to a ‘G9’ statement this week. The sense of it was that they committed, as a group, to improving the environment and people’s lives. This was fairly quickly seized on as being a somewhat hypocritical statement made by a group of chefs for extremely high end restaurants, who often have guests that fly in specially, and who themselves had flown into Peru for the conference at which the statement was made.

More disturbing than the hypocrisy was the impression they could and should influence a significant part of the world’s eating and cooking. Trish Deseine, an Irish food writer based in France, where her books are very successful, commented on this statement, and Jay Rayner’s critique with a discussion of what chefs have to do with home cooking.

I have a lot of sympathy with this view. I am as interested in El Bulli as the next gastronome, and have enjoyed the videos of the Harvard series on Science and Cooking that Ferran Adria and many other molecular gastronomes have lectured at (more coming in the autumn – you can get the audio and videos on iTunes University). However, I’m more interested in the science than the cooking. What any of these restaurants and chefs have to say about home cooking is fairly minimal.

It often surprises me that most people, even those who eat regularly in restaurants (or especially them), have little idea how a professional kitchen works, and how different it is to a home kitchen. I think most people have this slightly romantic idea that when they order a dish, the chefs start from scratch, chopping ingredients, making sauces, and then putting the whole plate together. This view of the professional kitchen is as a scaled-up version of a home kitchen and a dinner party – but this is not at all what happens.

A restaurant needs individual portions of protein, that can be portioned in advance, and then cooked to order in a short time. This will usually be things like steaks, chicken breasts, lamb chops, although the technique of sous-vide cooking makes it possible to cook tougher items like short ribs for a long time, and then just reheat them briefly before serving. All the accompaniments will be prepared as far as possible before service even starts (the mise en place) up to and including making all the sauces and keeping them warm. It’s easy and sensible to keep things like veal stock on hand, as it can be used in many different dishes, uses up leftovers or cheap ingredients that the kitchen might otherwise waste, and can cook all day (or overnight) in an out-of-the-way place. The restaurant needs to consider the margin of each menu item, how to use leftovers and scraps, and how to minimise waste and the time between order and service.

This way of cooking is completely different to a home kitchen. Having worked, albeit briefly, in a restaurant kitchen, I understand a little of the rhythms and resources that they work within, and I know they are completely different to a home cooking set up. When I reflect on the things I learnt at cooking school, I often think that what it did was to simplify the things I cook at home, not complicate them. I don’t even want to try and replicate that very different environment at home. I would rather do the things that home kitchens are good at, and get the most out of those.

At home, the important things are making a quantity that can serve many people (or over many nights) rather than individual portions. The time you get to cook is more likely in small chunks at the end of each day, and larger chunks at the weekends. Dishes like chilli and curries that can be cooked in a large batch, and that develop additional flavour when left in the fridge, are especially useful to a home cook. Baked dishes of beans or pasta, and roast joints of meat, that are portioned at the table as soon as they are done are much harder to do successfully in a restaurant. At home, you can cook something for a long time, and serve it precisely when it’s done. When was the last time you had a really good Yorkshire pudding in a restaurant? It’s really hard unless you serve it immediately.

There are good reasons to try and replicate restaurant food. Carol Blymire has progressed through the entire French Laundry cookbook, and is a long way through the Alinea cookbook too. In preparing these incredibly elaborate, multi-step recipes at home, she has learned so much more than I have about cookery, and added quite a few recipes to her home cooking repertoire. I have incredible admiration for the way she takes on these projects as a way to stretch her cooking abilities, but she never pretends that this is everyday cooking (nor do the authors of those books).

The sad thing, as Trish points out, is that we all want to be chefs. We watch Masterchef, and revere restaurant cookery, even if it’s just finding out what the chefs cook on their days off. Plain home cookery is a little out of style – perhaps with the exception of Mary Berry, flying the flag for home baking in an admirable way.

There is one major exception I would make to the general rule of keeping restaurant practice out of home kitchens, and that’s knife skills. I watched someone on the Great British Bake Off this week wielding a chefs knife while they made pork pies, and I winced. Learning to use a decent size (20cm plus) chef’s knife properly is an incredibly useful skill that will reduce the effort you make, and save your fingers. Find a course, or ask a friend who knows what they are doing to show you. It will make much more difference to your cooking than knowing how to make, say, a buttery biscuit base.

Vegetarian-ish – food that’s mostly plants

Spelt risotto with mushrooms
Spelt risotto topped with mushrooms, chorizo and thyme

The idea of reducing meat consumption seems to be everywhere at the moment. Whether it’s called ‘flexitarian’ (ugh), semi-vegetarian, or something else, the idea is to make your meals largely vegetarian or vegan, keeping dishes with meat at the centre for a minority of meals. Mark Bittman practices ‘vegan until 6’, keeping his meat-eating to the evenings. Weekday vegetarians get their fix on the weekends instead.

These trends all roughly follow healthy eating recommendations that have probably best been summed up by Michael Pollan as:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

[There is a NYT article which explains what this means in greater detail. But the short version is that  ‘eat food’ means things your grandmother would recognise as food – not highly processed confections. “Not too much” is more obviously about portion control, and everything in moderation. It’s the mostly plants bit where many of us fall down.]

There are many good reasons to do this, both for yourself and for sustainability reasons. Although figures are very disputed, it it generally less resource-intensive to produce vegetables and grains than meat, and agriculture is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases – more than all forms of transportation together. By forcing you to put grains or vegetables at the centre of the meal, you will increase your consumption of these foods, which are universally agreed to be good things to eat. It is also a cheaper way to eat, and can be a good way to challenge yourself to try new things.

Despite all these good reasons, finding guidance to help you plan mostly-vegetarian food is relatively difficult. Perhaps it’s because restaurants are generally organised around a central piece of expensive, quick-cooking protein (steak, fish fillet, pork chop, chicken breast) and we all want to cook restaurant food. Or because it’s just a relatively foreign way of cooking to baby boomer Americans and Brits.

I have found planning vegetarian meals a challenge. It’s hard to break the English conditioning, which says that planning a meal should start with a big piece of protein, adding some starchy carbohydrates and one or two portions of vegetables (and I say this as someone who was brought up on a very varied diet, with plenty of veggie dishes). Too often, I would default to pasta or cheese-based foods as obvious vegetarian options: macaroni and cheese, quiche, cheese souffle, etc.

As modern as I think I am, getting past meat and two veg is hard. And when you’re out of the habit of planning a week of meals ahead (as most of us likely are), it becomes even harder to exercise those muscles at short notice on a daily basis – when pressed for time, we are much more likely to revert to a familiar pattern of meat and two veg.

But this is not a new idea: there are many dishes that historically would have used just a little meat, bulked out with other filling ingredients, that have become meat-heavy recipes only recently. Ragu sauce with pasta would traditionally have been short on meat and long on pasta. An Irish stew would have made the most of a little meat and stretched it with broth and vegetables. Even roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are paired so that diners can fill up on the cheap starch of the pudding, and have just a small amount of beef.

The most helpful advice I have had on this, is to put the grain first. On the blog Herbivoracious, Michael suggests following three questions to plan a vegetarian meal:

  • What grain or starch do I feel like eating?
  • What food culture am I in the mood for?
  • What’s fresh?

Armed with these three questions, I’ve found it much easier to compose vegetarian meals that are filling, not full of cheese, and easy to adapt. You don’t have to make these meat free – and many are improved by judicious application of pork in particular – a few slices of chorizo, a little sizzled pancetta can boost flavour without making these meat-heavy dishes. A wide range of grains, beans and lentils are now available, and each can form the foundation of a dish in a way that provides both protein and filling fibre and starch, the role traditionally ascribed to meat and potatoes. Seasonings and vegetables can then be added to this base.

Helpful cookbooks

Looking through my cookbook collection, I was pretty surprised how few of them take this approach. Even those that feature vegetarian dishes tend to feature wholly vegetarian dishes, or else lots of vegetable and salad recipes, but without much that resembles a main meal.

Great examples of cookbooks that do this well include:

  • Super Natural Cooking, and I’m assuming, its follow up, Super Natural Every Day. Heidi writes the enormously popular 101cookbooks blog, and has a great way of combining interesting whole grains and flours with vegetables and fresh flavour combinations to make everything seem mouthwatering. However, it has some hard-to-find ingredients, as she’s based in San Francisco.
  • Leon: Naturally Fast Food cookbook – which has a specific section on meat as a garnish.
  • Ottolenghi: The Cookbook – and, although I don’t have it, I’m assuming Plenty too. You might have thought this would be perfect, but a large number of the recipes in here are for the salads and vegetable dishes that make up their lunch counters. These make a great meal with a few served together, but that all feels a bit less achievable for a weekday dinner.
  • Although short, the ‘Meatless Feasts’ chapter in Nigella’s Feast is lovely, featuring not just vegetarian meals, but vegetarian menus that hang together sensibly. It also contains one of my favourite recipes for a mixed party of veggies and non-veggies – the Tunisian meatballs and couscous, featuring a root vegetable stew that does very well on its own, but is even better when sprinkled with some of the lamb meatballs.
  • The Cranks Bible is, as you might expect, very good on vegetarian dishes, and includes one of my favourites: a version of Aubergine Parmigiana made with garlic-spiked creme fraiche instead of bechamel.

Types of mostly-plant dishes

To help me think about planning more veggie-centric meals, I have broken down the dishes into a few types, based more on the end result than the starting ingredients. This list provides a range of different starting points and

Dry grains: separate grains with deeply flavoursome toppings e.g. pilaffs, fried rice dishes, lentil salads, rice and peas.

For good fried rice, you need chilled rice and a very hot, well-seasoned wok to stop it sticking. It took me ages and many stuck-to-the-pan, soggy examples before I got it together. Especially with brown rice, this lends itself really well to lunch the next day as well. Which is just as well, because by the time I’ve fried two portions of rice with an egg, a little pork and lots of veg, I have at least 3 portions of food.

Creamy grains: rice and other grains cooked with an absorption method to make a type of  risotto e.g. true risotto, spelt in tomato sauce. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Barley, tomato and garlic risotto is a great example of this. Amazingly savoury and satisfying.

Stewed beans: beans, chickpeas, lentils cooked into a thick sauce, e.g. chillies, baked beans, curries thickened with lentils, dal

For example, Green’s Black Bean Chilli – just onions, garlic, spices and cooked black beans. When finished with a little lime juice and creme fraiche this is one of the meatiest and most satisfying of chillies. Thinned with a little more water, it’s really a black bean soup, and a good one of those too.

Savoury broth: soups and brothy stews e.g. minestrone, ribollita, harira, noodle soups

IMG_0158

Bread based: heaping vegetables onto tortillas, pittas, pizza bases, bruschetta

e.g. Vegetarian (0r nearly vegetarian) tacos, from Tommi Mier’s Mexican Food book. Fillings of roast butternut squash with a little chorizo, creamy greens with potatoes, courgette and sweetcorn, and mushrooms and shallots, combined with tortillas are both delicious and filling.

And that’s not counting pasta dishes…