Surprise cake

January 5, 2007 § 2 Comments

Surprise cake
Originally uploaded by louise_marston.

The picture looked quite appetising. You can see it too if you have a copy of ‘Jamie’s Kitchen’ by Jamie Oliver. Go ahead, take a look. “That looks good” I thought. “That looks moist, a little crumbly, a lovely teatime cake”. And I even had beetroot. the recipes most esoteric ingredient, lying around from my organic box a few weeks ago. So I set to work. Something should have tipped me off though. Maybe the use of olive oil instead of butter or another fat. Maybe the need for virtually a whole jar of honey to sweeten it, as there was no other sugar in the recipe. And maybe the colour of the batter after I had added the beetroot mash. It was purple – very purple indeed. But I persevered, popped it in the oven, and prepared to unveil it for pudding that evening when my parents were coming round to eat.

Everyone was suitably amused at the colour, and not a little apprehensive when they heard that this was a beetroot-based cake. But all bravely accepted and tasted a slice. I think it was my other half who first voiced his opinion. “This is terrible” he said. Unfortunately my mum and I were pretty much in agreement. There was no getting away from it – it tasted mostly of beetroot and little else. It wasn’t sweet enough to really be cake, with a harsh, bitter note which I put down to the beetroot combined with my use of Chestnut Honey. My Dad bravely finished his slice, but could not be prevailed on to accept seconds. And the conclusion? Beetroot and cake are not natural partners, so beware any recipe that calls for over 1lb of them. And Jamie Oliver must have been thinking of an entirely different recipe when he took that photo. Reassuringly, I have not been the only one to come to these conclusions – others have had a similar experience.

January Cooking

December 29, 2006 § Leave a comment

In the reading time afforded by the Christmas holidays, I have been composing a list of recipes to tackle in the next few weeks. This started out at a mental list, but then I committed it to post-it, and now I’m posting it for the world to see – in the hope that it will help me actually tackle them all.

Lentil & Chestnut Soup from Feast: Food That Celebrates Life by Nigella Lawson
I made this a couple of years ago, and spent ages trying to remember where I got the recipe from. All I remembered that it had chestnuts, and was the best, most wintry soup I made that year. This one I accomplished this afternoon – there’s no picture, because it’s not the most exciting soup to look at, as you might expect from the ingredients list.

Rudolph Pie also from Feast
This is to use up the cold venison I have in my fridge from Boxing Day at my parents house. Going to do this tomorrow.

The Blood Orange Marmalade I made last year is nearly out, so time to make some more as soon as Seville Oranges are in the shops. This year I will either use the recipe from my new copy of the The Cranks Bible or from MFK Fisher’s description of her family recipe in With Bold Knife and Fork. This one sounds like it could be wonderful, but includes no very specific quantities and requires 3 days!

Pumpkin & Mango Chutney Parcels
Pasta stuffed with the butternut squash I’ve got sitting in the vegetable box.

Ginger Cake
Ginger cake always goes down well in our house – it lasts ages, and goes very well with tea. Dan Lepard’s recipe in the Guardian a few weeks ago looks like a good one.

Jeffrey Steingarten’s article on the perfect French Fry in The Man Who Ate Everything includes a description of how to make chips at home following Joel Robuchon’s home method. The idea is apparently to put the cold cut-up potatoes into cold oil and heat the whole thing up together, thereby giving them the first cooler cooking followed by the hotter second frying, all in one go.

Christmas cookies

December 26, 2006 § Leave a comment

Food blogs have been awash with cookie recipes recently – those to eat, then & there, those to share with visitors and those to pack up and post off to deserving friends and relations. I have been busy with a variety of recipes this year – some new and some old. But rather than describe all in detail, here is a round-up of my Christmas baking:

Oatmeal and Raisin Cookies
These come from a book purchased in America – appropriately enough, the The All-American Cookie Book, and have been a favourite for some time. They are apparently from a bed and breakfast known as Dairy Hollow House, and guests would be presented with one giant cookie in a little bag for their journey home. They are subtly spiced with ginger and cinnamon, and are crispy with just a little chewiness at the centre.

Clementine Sables
Inspired by Orangette‘s Meyer lemon sables, and by the Buy One Get One Free offer on Marks & Spencer‘s clementines, I made these little chill-and-slice shortbread biscuits. My genius discovery is that sanding sugar, used for decorating cakes and cookies, especially in America, can be very cheaply and easily substituted by preserving sugar.

Gingerbread Men
I have never made gingerbread men before, but the Christmassy-ness of them, plus the opportunity to play with icing faces and buttons proved too much to resist. I came across various ginger biscuit recipes at Chocolate and Zucchini, 101 Cookbooks and in several of my books, but in the end, I stuck to Nigella’s Britishness in How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. My only adjustments to her recipe were to reduce the black pepper, and to replace this by ground ginger. The biscuits were appropriately stiff and plain, but the spices developed beautifully over time, and now, a week since baking, they are very fragrant – although the icing did end up sticking them together in the cake tin.

Chocolate Macaroons
I love chocolate macarons de paris, and have bought them from many places, including Miette bakery at the Ferry Plaza building in San Francisco, and from the Yauatcha concession at the Taste of London exhibition this year. However, since my first attempt at baking them myself at cooking school came out badly, I haven’t really attempted them again. The main problems are 1) that characteristic smooth and shiny top and 2) the requisite chewiness combined with good chocolate flavour. There is no doubt that it is much easier to make them in the UK, where finely ground almonds are easily obtainable than to grind them yourself. This time I followed Flo Braker’s quite precise instruction in her book Sweet Miniatures – some worked very well, others stayed crackly, but they all tasted pretty good :)

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Better cookies

November 9, 2006 § Leave a comment

There have been occasions for cookies recently – visits with friends, the need for something sweet on a cold night, so last week I determined that I would make some Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, which always seems to suit autumn well. My first thought was for a huge batch of Oatmeal Raisin cookies from my copy of The All-American Cookie Book – they have gone down very well before, being tasty and crispy, with just the right amount of chew from the raisins. However, then I read David Lebovitz’s post on Nick Malgieri‘s Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies – low fat, but still good, made with some apple sauce instead of butter. As it happened, I had a couple of Bramley apples sitting in the fridge, so it seemed fated that I should try this recipe instead of my normal one. And I have to say it turned out very well – the cookies are chewy, but softer and moister than my usual ones, and without the usual shortening and butter combo, you can feel extra-virtuous about eating them!

I converted the recipe as posted by David into metric, and also added some spices that I usually add to the other recipe – and they worked very well.

140g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
30g butter, softened
100g caster sugar
90g light brown muscovado sugar
1 large egg
70g unsweetened apple sauce
1 tsp vanilla extract
135g rolled oats
85g raisins

Preheat the oven to 190C (375F, 165C fan) and line a couple of baking sheets with baking parchment.

Mix the flour, baking powder, bicarb, spices and salt together so that the leavening is evenly distributed. Set aside.
Cream the butter with the caster sugar (it will be much stiffer than usual) for 4 or 5 minutes. Mix in the brown sugar, followed by the beaten egg, apple sauce, and vanilla. I used my electric mixer for all this, but it’s all perfectly possible with a wooden spoon. Stir in the flour, oats and raisins until just combined – do not beat hard. Spoon tablespoons of the mixture (a bit smaller than a golfball) onto the baking sheets, and press with a fork to flatten a little. (I forgot this on the second sheet, but it didn’t seem to make very much difference).

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until they look dull on the surface, but are moist and soft, and are just golden at the edges.

Macaroni and other crunchy-topped things

October 12, 2006 § Leave a comment

I was going to write a recipe for Macaroni Cheese here, but it occurred to me that this wasn’t very helpful. For one thing, it’s a pretty simple recipe and most people have one somewhere. For another, I don’t even have a recipe as such. This is one of those dishes that I have been cooking for as long as I can remember – an essential dish in my mother’s repetoire, along with bolognese sauce (and by extension, lasagne) and quiche.

So instead of a recipe, I wanted to turn this into a set of guidelines for gratins, which is all that macaroni cheese is, at heart. Richard Ehrlich’s compilation of Guardian columns ‘The Perfect …’ includes a wonderful 2 or 3 page set of instructions for the perfect potato gratin. I don’t think I need to be so prescriptive, though. The definition of a good gratin can be much broader and more forgiving than this.

The sauce of a gratin, the part that allows all that bubbling goodness to take place, is composed of either a bechamel sauce, or simply of milk or cream (and occasionally stock) combined with the starchy contents. Only raw potatoes are really starchy enough to thicken the sauce in the second case, so this method is restricted to gratin dauphinoise and its variations.

The best gratins are generally made with starchy contents (although fennel and chard gratins are both good). The homey, comforting nature of them – the need to serve them ‘family style’ from a communal dish – is enhanced with soft, starchy contents such as potatoes, pasta and root vegetables.

Crispy top
The original meaning of ‘au gratin’ was simply something browned under the grill, and this brown, crispy top remains the crucial element of this dish, and the reason for the wide, shallow gratin dish, giving a large area of crispy, with just the right amount of creamy underneath. The crispy top can either be achieved with cooking on the stove plus a stint under the grill, or by a long spell in the oven (which is the preferred method for gratin dauphinoise).

So, using these basic principles, we can create:

  • Macaroni Cheese – sauce is bechamel with cheese (aka cheese sauce), starch is al dente cooked macaroni, and crispy top can be just cheese (for purists, and those who like lots of cheese – and who doesn’t) or cheese and breadcrumbs.
  • Gratin dauphinoise – lots of dispute about this one, but basically just milk and/or cream as the sauce, raw potato slices layered with onions and cooked in the oven until the top is brown.
  • Root vegetable gratin – slices of carrots, parsnips, swedes, cooked gently in a pan, combined with bechamel, then covered with breadcrumbs and baked.

And while away the whole autumn and winter with gooey, creamy, starchy dishes with crispy tops…Perfect.

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Ale Cake

October 12, 2006 § Leave a comment

I recently made the same fruitcake for the 3rd time since hearing of the recipe early this year. I first heard the recipe on Woman’s Hour in my lady-of-leisure days. It’s a lovely recipe, simple and tasty, that has to be approached in quite a leisurely manner, requiring pre-soaking of the fruit and a long, long cooking time. However, it didn’t occur to me that it was particularly unusual until the other weekend. The reason for making the cake this time around was to take as a birthday cake for a friend of ours that we were meeting up with in Woolacombe (that’s a great surf spot in Devon by the way). As this cake (in fact, any fruitcake) can be made in advance and is robust enough to travel, it seemed an excellent choice. Both Friend and his fiancee loved the cake, but she made a particular point of saying that she usually dislikes fruit cake, but liked this one – which made me wonder, (as Carrie Bradshaw might write):

What makes this one different?

The Ale Cake recipe fits with most other fruitcake recipes – it calls for you to cream together the butter and sugar, gradually beat in the eggs, fold in the flour gently, then the fruit, and back at a low temperature for a long time. The quirks are that the fruit is first soaked overnight in a generous quantity of beer, the sugar is dark brown muscovado, and the cake starts off at a moderate 160C for the first hour, lowering to 120C after that.

So to think about it further, my starting point was to compare this recipe with a standard fruit cake – and what could be more standard than Delia’s Classic Christmas Cake? I also compared it with Delia’s Dundee cake recipe. So here is the comparison of the quantities of the three recipes (I increased the quantities of the Dundee Cake recipe in proportion so that all used 4 eggs – the original uses 3 eggs):

All in grams (unless stated) Classic Christmas Cake Ale Cake Dundee Cake
Fruit 900 875 600
Liquid 45ml 250ml -
Butter 225 225 200
Sugar 225 225 200
Eggs 4 4 4
Flour 225 225 300

This ignores the minor ingredients, such as treacle & spices, plus any chopped nuts, which shouldn’t make any real difference to the texture. The two things that jump out at you are

  1. the ale cake has much, much more liquid than the other two and
  2. the dundee cake has a good deal more flour and less fruit in.

I would expect this to mean a moister, and possibly flatter cake for the ale cake and a drier, ‘cakier’ texture for the dundee cake, which certainly fits Delia’s description. The reason that the 250ml of beer in the ale cake doesn’t play havoc with the cake batter is that the fruit is soaked overnight in it, and it is virtually all absorbed. So instead of a runny cake batter, what you have instead is lots of moist, plump fruit, that doesn’t draw moisture from the cake after baking, and helps keep the cake moist and give it its almost fudgey texture. I suspect that the relatively mellow beer, compared to the brandy in the Christmas cake, helps to ensure that the flavour is not too sweet or too bitter, which some vine fruits can be.

So, as we are getting into Christmas Cake baking season, I am asking myself if this recipe would work well as a Christmas cake as well? I suspect that it could stand a few modifications to make it a bit more ‘Christmassy’, but would hold up well. Perhaps a shot of brandy in with the beer (would that be too weird?) and a bit more emphasis on citrus flavours – citrus juice and citrus zest and peel – would help give it that hot toddy feel. Or what about using red wine for soaking the fruit to give it a mulled wine feel? I will let you know how I get on with this one. Christmas cake is an important tradition in our household. Nathan’s gran has baked him a personal Christmas cake for at least as long as I have known him. As she sadly died earlier this year, this will be our first Christmas without her, and there will be complaints if it is not up to her standard…

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Buffet food

September 12, 2006 § Leave a comment

This is a special post in response to Sam’s heartfelt plea over at Becks & Posh. She wants recipe suggestions for her Mum to make for her own retirement party. As it happens, waaaaay back in February, I made a brunch buffet for a load of people, and the stand-out winner was the frittata. I wanted to make eggs (because you can’t really call it brunch unless I have eggs) but I also wanted as much of the buffet as possible to be done in advance. So I made a baked frittata, assembled from various sources (including an Australian Women’s Weekly book, and, if I remember rightly). It’s a very forgiving recipe that lends itself to including leftovers, and can be cut into as small pieces as you need.

Breakfast Frittata
To fill one 30cm x 21cm (roughly 8″ x 12″) tin, cut into 12 large triangles.

6-8 charlotte potatoes, boiled until tender & cooled
3 onions, halved and roasted in the over for around 1 hr until caramelised
1.5 – 2 cups frozen peas
120g crumbled lancashire cheese
8 eggs
284ml carton double cream
lots of salt & pepper

Chop the potatoes and onions into roughly pea-sized pieces. Crumble in the cheese. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and pour over the vegetables with the cream. Mix around and pour into the foil-lined tin.
Bake at 140C for around 40 minutes, or until just set in the middle. (Keeping the temperature low helps keep the texture creamy).
Leave to cool, then store in the fridge. Unmould and cut into pieces while cold, then leave for an hour or so to come to room temperature before serving.

New house

September 12, 2006 § Leave a comment

We have just moved house to a new place in Chiswick near the river, and I’m really looking forward to exploring all the new foodie attractions down here, including:

FishWorks – near Turnham Green tube
This chain of fish restaurants with fresh fish counters is very popular, but I’ve yet to make use of one. Fish is a real cooking blind spot for me – I’m so seldom inspired to do something more interesting than fry or bake it – so I’m going to try and branch out a bit.

The Old Ship – on the river
A nice pub that was hired for work’s summer drinks a few weeks ago. Great river views, and they do decent food too.

Duke’s Meadows’ Farmers’ Market (do you think I got all the apostrophes right there?!)
Duke’s Meadows is a great piece of common land, with playing fields, allotments and gardens. There is a small farmers market on Sundays – I went last weekend, but right at the end, and much of the produce was gone. Will try and get up earlier next time :)

Midsummer House on a summer evening

July 19, 2006 § Leave a comment

For my birthday last week, my rather lovely husband booked us a meal at Midsummer House in Cambridge, with a mutual friend of ours who was visiting from the States. Despite a 3 year stint in the town on the banks of the Cam, I had never been there, but I had heard good things, so I was excited to see what it was like. It should also be noted that there is a considerable dearth of restaurants above the cheap student level in Cambridge.

We arrived a touch late for our table, but the staff displayed not a hint of irritation. The dining space is a small conservatory area and one room in the house, but the tables are well spaced out, the restaurant focusing on quality in small quantities.

There was a tasting menu, but we ordered from the a la carte menu, which was equally interesting. I ordered a fennel gazpacho, on the recommendation of the waiter, followed by turbot. Before our starters, we were treated to 2 amuses bouche (or amuses bouches??). The first was a pink grapefruit and champagne foam, presented from a siphon – like a soda siphon, but round – at the table. It was sharp, dry, and very refreshing.

The second amuse reminded me a lot of a dish that we had at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas last year (oh, the jet set lifestyle!). It was a little glass jar, with a green pea foam, in which were lurking little tiger prawns, cubes of seaweed jelly, and peas. The foam was good and savoury, and really brought out the sweetness of the prawns.

The fennel gazpacho was poured into an elabourate plate of bits and pieces, including some sort of caramel used to make a little tube, which was filled with a yoghurt mousse and topped with little chips of freeze dried yoghurt. There was also delicate pieces of fennel and cucumber in there, and a quennelle of yoghurt sorbet. The flavours went beautifully together – all cool and delicate. And a chilled soup was the perfect thing for a hot, sticky evening.

The mains then came. My turbot came with a peanut and pistachio crust, a smear of squash puree, crisply wrapped asparagus, little broad beans, and a squirt of essence of vanilla added at the table. At first I thought the peanut and pistachio overpowered the fish, but taken with the sweet puree and vanilla essence, it helped to balance out the sweetness with the salty peanuts, and the fish was strong enough to stand up to it.

Although we were pretty well filled at this point, we weren’t strong enough to resist the dessert menu – especially when the chocolate fondant came with a particular recommendation. I ordered this, but before it came, we had another amuse. This was a strawberry with a little diced strawberry and cubes of strawberry jelly (they were very keen on little cubes of jelly). It looked like a standard cheesecake in a little mould, but at the table the moulds were removed to reveal a barely-held together cheesecake foam, on top of biscuit crumbs. It was like a cross between a cheesecake and a cloud – one of the better uses of a foam I have come across.

After a suitable pause to digest (which I was very grateful for) the chocolate plate arrived. As well as a really good, properly liquid-centred chocolate fondant, there was also a scoop of walnut ice-cream, a dark chocolate sauce with cubes of amaretto jelly and a long chocolate wafer with cacao nibs in it. It was a stunning plate of food, but the fondant was so rich that I barely tackled half of it. A smaller fondant would have allowed a better balance, but then it would probably be too difficult to get the baked outside with the liquid centre.

All in all, it was an excellent meal, only enhanced by the opportunity to catch up with a friend.
And as a postscript, I would like to wish Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini a Joyeux Anniversaire! as it’s her birthday today.

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Broad bean crostini

June 24, 2006 § Leave a comment

Broad bean crostini
Originally uploaded by louise_marston.

Lunchtime rolls around and I have the following at my disposal:

  • Half a frozen foccacia
  • the end of a piece of St Chevrier Ash – a creamy, tangy goat’s cheese
  • 2 bags of broad beans (fava beans) from Hammersmith farmer’s market on Thursday
  • Seems like a no-brainer, so I put the foccacia into the oven to defrost for 5 or 10 mintes.

    Half an hour later, I have half a foccacia crispbread (you can see it in the background of the photo).

    Well, at least it’s not burnt, and sliced thinly the centre is still chewy and the edges crisp. I pod and blanch the broad beans and pop them out of their little grey skins. Half go into the fridge for tea, and half get ‘bashed’ in my mortar, Jamie Oliver-style, with salt, lemon juice, olive oil and a little grating of parmesan. I spread the St Chevrier on the thin foccacia slices, and top with the broad bean mush. It all turned out much better than those inauspicious beginnings.

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