Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Student Dinner: Home Made Baked Beans

Today was meant to be my last day at university. I had my final exam on Tuesday, and I was meant to pick up my dissertation mark today. Typically, the secretary was ill and the office was closed. I still had dinner planned though.

I had been thinking for a while what I should have. I toyed with the idea of recreating the food I ate in first year, when I lived in halls and ate in the canteen.

For starters, there would be vegetable soup. Only the soup has gone, and your bowl has some mushy vegetables in it. Once we got a serving so unsouplike that it could be scraped up in a heap on one side of the bowl.

Next up would be fish and spring vegetables. Excellent. A nice, healthy, tasty bit of fish. Yum. Here, the catch would be that I would give my flatmate the last piece of fish, and I would have a burrito filled with the mushy vegetables from the soup. No matter what time I got in the queue, the last portion of fish would always go to the person two or three places ahead of me in the line. If I was really lucky, I would treat myself with fried chicken. Except the kitchen has run out of breadcrumbs, so they used breakfast cereal. Not cornflakes though. Rice Krispies. Sweet!?

Finally, dessert would involve me considering a pot of fruit salad, but being put off by the excess of melon and not enough grapes. Over to the dessert specials! As there is that box of Rice Krispies that needs using up, why not make orange jelly, and top it with whipped cream and puffed rice? Why not indeed? *

Talking of Why Not? (a rather expensive and cheesy club favoured by public school types) I'd squeeze on to the dining table with one or two friends, while the rest of the seats were taken up by posh kids discussing whether to go to Why Not? or Opal Lounge. Plus Daddy and Pimsy are coming up on Saturday to watch the rugger. Tally Ho!

Instead I went for the student favourite of baked beans on toast.


I made the baked beans yesterday as they took 13 hours to make. You had to soak the haricots for 10 hours, boil for an hour, chop and brown onions, garlic and bacon, then simmer the ingredients in chopped tomatoes for an hour and half. I can't find the exact recipe online but there are loads on Google. I might give some of the others a go, as although mine we nice, they lacked a certain je ne s'ais quoi.

For the toast, I bought a sourdough loaf from Peter's Yard. I love the way the crust is really chewy but the inside is soft with a slight tang to it. (I got kicked out of there the other day as I had been in there for 3 hours studying and they wanted to close! I feel a bit embarassed about this but it is also a bit cool that the staff now recognise me as the person who can make coffee and a cake last half a day.)

On its own, I thought it looked a bit ascetic, so I added a side salad and a portabella mushroom stuffed with peppered cheddar and breadcrumbs. It was a pretty tasty dinner and good for my student budget too!

(*All this talk of the halls' canteen makes me want to go back and review it objectively. Maybe it wasn't so bad after all...)

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

10 dinners

This article on BBC News reveals that the average Briton knows ten recipes off by heart. I found this quite surprising, as I didn't think I knew ten recipes!

Here are the top ten:
Spaghetti bolognese
Roast dinner
Chilli con carne
Cottage or shepherd's pie
Meat or fish stir fry
Beef casserole
Macaroni cheese
Toad in the hole
Meat, fish or vegetable curry

Part of me thinks this isn't exactly 10 recipes, as chilli, bolognese and cottage pie are essentially the same recipe (and lasagne to some extent) but with varying carbohydrate accompaniments, although I guess there are components that need different knowledge areas, such as making mashed potato topping or bechemel sauce.

For me, most of the recipes I know come from growing up. As a child and teenager, I wouldn't mind eating the same things over again. My brother and sister were also quite fussy eaters, so there was a limited repertoire of dishes in our household. Shepherd's pie was probably the first dinner I learnt to cook, followed by bolognese and curry. I have only learnt casseroles, stir fry and roasts in the past few years at uni, as I've extended my repertoire to consist of what I want to eat, rather than what my brother and sister can handle.

Out of the top ten, I can't make macaroni cheese or toad in the hole without a recipe. The macaroni is because despite years of trying, I still don't really like cheese. I don't really eat toad in the hole often enough to have memorised the recipe, although I do cook it very occasionally.

My top ten would replace the macaroni cheese with a sponge cake. I have been making a basic sponge since I was 9 years old. For some reason, I became fascinated with victoria sponge, and would make it almost weekly. Although I know the recipe off by heart, I'm not sure I could make it now as I only know it in imperial measurements! 4oz of butter, 4oz of sugar, 2 eggs, 4oz of flour, some salt, baking powder and vanilla essence. Gas mark 4 for 30 minutes. I had the recipe memorised by the time I was 11 or 12, so that is quite weird that it is still in my head after so many years! I haven't had an oven with gas marks for at least 6 years, so that makes it even stranger that I only know the imperial measurements.

I would also include chicken fajitas. Every Saturday night, I would make fajitas for my mum, brother and sister. I think I must have eaten them in a restaurant somewhere and tried to copy them at home, as I don't remember ever following a recipe. They were originally made with pre-cooked, flavoured chicken (the type you put in sandwiches and salads) but over the years I refined the recipe to use fresh chicken. I still make them sometimes for my flatmates.

While I follow a recipe for the majority of the time, I am now confident enough to branch out a bit. I might just take the ingredients and make my own process, or follow the process but sub in my own ingredients. Since I like to experiment and try new dishes, it is quite rare that I will make something weekly, hence why I don't have a bigger list of known recipes. I think I could give a lot of dishes a good attempt without a recipe, since I have a good knowledge of cookery techniques and how different ingredients are used, but given that I usually have to eat what I'm cooking, I don't want to go too crazy and make something inedible!

What recipes do you know off by heart? Do you have an interesting story behind how you know it?

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Loopy Lorna's

One of my favourite things about holidays as a child was going to National Trust houses, partly as I am a geek but partly because I loved having a cream tea after. While scones and jam are common throughout the UK, to be a proper cream tea it needs to have clotted cream. Having a cream tea served with whipped cream is iniquitous in my opinion. It should have a generous layer of jam (ideally strawberry or raspberry, and ideally seeded or whole fruit) and then a mountain of clotted cream. Some people put a thin layer of cream and masses of jam, but that is no fun in my opinion.

After a particularly lazy morning, T and I walked to Morningside. I wanted to nose around Waitrose to see if they had any freeze dried raspberries, and possibly check out the Oxfam bookshop for some cookery tomes. Instead we stopped by Loopy Lorna's for tea.

It was quite busy, which wasn't surprising for Saturday afternoon, but there were a couple of spare tables. The waitress brought round menus, and we decided to treat ourselves to a Cornish cream tea. T had morning blend tea, and I had Lapsang Souchong. The counter was heaving with delicious looking cakes, and I couldn't wait to see if the scones were as good as they looked.

Our tea came in tiny teapots, each with a unique teacosy. Mine was black with a pink knitted teapot, Loopy Lorna's logo. T had an amazing teacosy on his pot, it was knitted from a feathery material and decorated to look like a chicken! I wish I'd had my camera with me. The tea was loose leaf, so alongside our cups and saucers, we were both provided with a tea strainer.

The first cup was delicious, with a hint of smoke. Normally I am a milk and sugar type, but I drank this black. The next cup was a little overbrewed, but had T and I shared a pot instead of demanding different types of tea it would have been great. They also offered free refills of hot water, so even though the tea was a little expensive you could easily string it out for a few extra cups. I was torn between the lapsong souchong and the Earl Grey, although I was also tempted by the white teas and oolongs. I shall have to go back and try all the others!

The scones looked delicious, and the bowl of clotted cream was generous. The raspberry jam had nice chunks of fruit in it, but the portion was a tad stingey for a greedy person like me!

Now for the moment of truth... could these scones live up to my childhood memories? They were almost perfect. The outside was biscuity, with a bit of a crunch, but the inside was soft and cake-like. The best bit was that they didn't leave the weird, cloying floury film on your teeth that bad scones do. The worst bit was that I felt so full afterwards! We couldn't finish all of them, and didn't have enough room for a refil of tea.

I really wish I had thought of this, as it's really quirky and unusual. I loved all the retro china and doilies, and the slightly mismatched and bold decor. Even though it is a bit of a trek from my flat, I really wish I had more visitors so I could take them out for tea! I can't wait to go back and try all the different blends of tea, as well as the full afternoon tea with sandwiches and cakes. A great little find and highly recommended.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Salted Caramel Mocha Cookies

In Delicious. this month there is a was an advert for a coffee machine which came with an recipe for cappuccino thumbprint cookies. This got me thinking, and I suddenly became obsessed with adapting the recipe to make salted caramel mochas.

I followed the dough recipe pretty closely, only making a couple of changes to the method. It was the filling that really took time and experimentation. I wanted to make a creamy caramel, much like you get inside a Twix or a Mars bar. Using Leiths, and various online recipes, I made four batches of caramel. All of them were rubbish. The first couple burned, even though I was using a sugar thermometer. The second two I was much more careful with, and took them off the heat well before they were anywhere near burning point. I tried stopping one with cream, but instead it just turned in to a giant lump of hard sugar and some slightly dubious looking brown cream. The next batch I used a combination of milk and butter. This had a better consistency, but was a very dark brown and instead of being smooth and creamy, had a weirdly grainy mouthfeel.

4 attempts at caramel meant that I had run out of sugar, clean saucepans and dairy products. My fingers were covered in tiny burns from boiling, spitting sugar, and I was getting frustrated. Why was boiling some sugar so difficult? I was being attentive, monitoring the temperature, and not stirring too much. The part of me that thinks I am a good cook suggested that it was a combination of a dodgy electric hob and a cheap, thin saucepan. The part of me that wants to be a good cook thought I was probably stirring too early, heating too quickly, and getting distracted too easily.

While searching online, I found a recipe for millionaire's shortbread. Looking at the picture, it seemed that was exactly the type of caramel I was looking for. A baking community I posted on also suggested a similar recipe. I noted down the ingredients, and went to bed. That night I dreamt of caramel. All of my dreams featured it in some way. I dreamt of bubbling sugar, liquid in the pan but solid on the counter. I was surrounded by vast containers of dark, burnt toffee, with curdled cream and butter floating on top. Finally, I dreamt of the millionaire's shortbread, and the promise of a perfect, mellow, soft caramel, interspersed with the crunch of vanilla sea-salt.

The next morning, I couldn't wait to get out of bed. This is a very rare feeling for me! I went off to the supermarket, stocked up on sugar, butter and condensed milk. I was going to crack this today.

I mixed up the ingredients in a pan, playing slightly with the quantities. I stirred as the butter melted, then stirred as I added the sugar and the golden syrup. I kept stirring as I added the condensed milk. And stirred, and stirred. Slowly the texture began to thicken, and the taste became more caramelised. Then some brown lumps appeared. The baking community had warned that it would catch easily. NOOOOOOOOOO!

I whipped it off the heat, and strained it in to a new pan. Luckily, there were only one or two burnt specks, which got caught in the sieve. I turned the hob down to the lowest heat and stirred some more. I stirred for a full 30 minutes. I wasn't even convinced the mixture was thickening properly, and the colour didn't appear to be changing either. Still stirring, I reached over to the sink to get the sieve and the used pan. Only then did I realise how brown my mixture was! The old saucepan was a eggy yellow, but the one I was currently stirring was the colour of tanned skin after a good day at the beach (not my skin though, then it would have been a violent red).

Doing a little victory dance (but still stirring) I poured the caramel in to a bowl. While warm, it was fairly liquid, when cooled it was almost solid, but still pliable. Perfect.

Maybe when I have a kitchen with natural light I will be able to take good photos.

Salted Caramel Mocha Cookies.
Makes 40

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Mix 285g plain flour, 100g cocoa powder, and 2tsp of sea salt in bowl, with 2tbsp ground coffee.

In another bowl, cream 225g unsalted butter with 285g caster sugar. Mix in 2 egg yolks and 2 tbsp cream. Once combined, add in the flour cocoa mixture. Stir gently until combined, then turn out on to a work surface and knead until you have a smooth dough.

Divide the mixture in to 4, and then make 10 small balls from each of your quarters. If you don't want to make the 40 cookies, you can keep the dough in the fridge for a week, or the freezer for a month. Put the balls in the fridge for 2 hours to harden up. If you try to bake them straight away they will spread too much and break up.

Form each of the balls into a shape like a pie shell. You want the edges to be fairly thin, but not so thin that they will crack in the oven. About 5mm is ok.

Bake in the oven for 10 mins, and then cool on a rack. If any of the holes for the filling have risen, then push them down while still soft. While the shells are cooling, make the caramel.

Melt 180g unsalted butter in a saucepan over a low heat. When melted, add 75g caster sugar and stir until dissolved. Then add 2 tbsp golden syrup, and stir until combined. Finally, add in a can (397g) condensed milk, and stir continuously. When the mixture is golden and thick (and tastes caramelly) remove from the heat into a clean bowl. Stir in sea salt to taste. I used about 30g of vanilla sea salt, but I like my caramel SALTY.

Filling the shells

Once the caramel has cooled slightly (but is still liquid enough to pour easily) and the biscuit shells have hardened, fill the shells with caramel. Mine took about a tablespoon of caramel per biscuit.

Lots of filled shells

Finally, melt 200g white chocolate and spoon this over the caramel, smoothing out the edges so the caramel is hidden. Make it pretty with a dusting of cocoa powder.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Press Coffee, Edinburgh

Press Coffee, Buccleuch Street

Press Coffee is in what used to be a second hand bookshop, with a rather dubious hippy cafe underneath. Given that their nachos comprised of some doritos with ketchup on top, I wasn't surprised when it shut down.

I was initially a bit suspicious the first few times I walked past. There was no decor to speak of, with plain white walls and a rather forlorn looking chiller counter in the middle of the floor. For several weeks nothing seemed to happen, and I wondered if it was one of those places that shut down before it even got going.

A week or so later, while eating lunch in Kilimanjaro (a rather nice coffee shop near to uni), I saw on their news bulletin sheet that Press Coffee was essentially a second branch of Kilimanjaro. Having been reassured that it wasn't some dubious ketchup nacho affair, I decided to give it a try.

I ordered Moroccan chicken soup and a cappuccino. I was instantly impressed that I was asked whether I wanted my coffee with the meal or after. I still find it a bit strange drinking coffee with a meal, but as I was pushed for time I opted to have both together. Just as I sat down, the guy at the counter came over to tell me that they'd run out of chicken soup, but had some Thai vegetable instead. I was fine with the switch, although I little disappointed as I do love a bit of Moroccan chicken!

The cappuccino arrived and had an attempt at latte art on it. My flatmate E usually works as a barista during the holidays, and reckons that latte art is always a good sign. Apparently you need several variables to right before you can do it properly, and it indicates that a certain level of care goes in to the coffee.

Although Peter's Yard does the best latte art I've seen in Edinburgh, this was a pretty decent attempt, and the coffee underneath was pretty tasty too. Also, I really liked the spoon. A minor thing, but well designed cutlery always scores bonus points.

The soup came with a massive section of baguette, and a pot of butter. It was generally tasty, although not that memorable. I have visited subsequently and had the paninis, which again, while good, aren't so great that they are worth the visit alone. I think Press Coffee's real strength is that they are very close to uni, and the only places that are cheaper than them serve really bad food and drink. I've already been several times, just because they are easy to get to, good value and I know I'll get a decent meal, unlike the union-run cafes!

I think the biggest disadvantages Press Coffee has are the location and the decor. (I know I just said they had a good location but hear me out.) The coffee is better than most places nearby, and the food is good value, but not so great as to make it worth a special trip for. While they are close to uni, I suspect they could struggle during the summer when that part of town isn't so busy. However, if their business plan revolves around making money during term time to tide over the quieter holiday periods, then they could do ok.

While the decor is not offensive, it isn't exciting either. The white walls, plain seating and strangely placed chiller cabinet make it seem a bit clinical, and it needs to be full to get any kind of atmosphere going. Given that it used to be a book shop, I would have perhaps played on this and made the interior slightly more cosy. The big windows will be spectacular in summer, but seeing as Edinburgh is grey and dull most of the year, I'm not convinced that people want to feel that exposed. Certainly, when I'm looking for somewhere to eat in winter (and most of autumn and spring too), my key factor is warmth. They'll have to really have the radiators on full blast to counteract the "coldness" of the decor when the two days of summer are over!

I'll be interested to see how Press Coffee fairs over the next few months, and it's currently slightly ahead of Kilimanjaro in my opinion, mainly as Kilimanjaro is often too busy to be comfortable. I'd also keep it in mind if you are planning to visit for the festival, as it's close enough to the action (Gilded Balloon and Pleasance Dome are 5 minutes away) to be convenient, but hidden enough that you might actually get a seat.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Eating in the Alps

Last week, T and I went skiing in France. We are not very good as we have only been once before, but we thought we'd give it another go.

I was looking forward to eating lots of great food, but I was a little disappointed. We stayed in a catered chalet so most of our food was cooked by seasonnaires, which meant it was a little patchy. I suppose that you can't expect a 19 year-old, with little or no culinary experience to whip up amazing meals for 16 hungry skiers twice a day, but by the end of the week it was very obvious which of the 3 hosts who worked in our chalet had been sent to cookery school! One girl was very good and well-organised, but the other two were a little chaotic, burnt the dinner and didn't set out enough places at the table!

Mostly the food was British, which I thought was a bit silly given that we were in Southern France. They did attempt a local speciality, tartiflette. This is like a dauphinois, but the potatoes are layered with bacon and onions and topped with Reblochon cheese. There were also a couple of great dishes, such as roast lamb with Savoy cabbage, and honey and goats' cheese bruschetta. I tried to steal the recipe for this from the chalet host guidebook after they'd left for the night, but I couldn't find it in there! I think it had been adapted from the goats' cheese salad recipe, so I will try to recreate it soon as it was delicious (which is a lot for me to say as normally I hate most cheeses).

Everyday, when we got back from skiing, there would be baguettes, butter, jam and a cake left out for us to snack on until dinner time. The butter was unsalted and made using partly fermented milk, giving it a slightly "yoghurty" tang. I wasn't entirely convinced by unsalted butter, but I did like the tanginess. On the flight home, our meal contained a bread roll with salted butter. Even over the week, I had adjusted to unsalted butter so much that the salted butter was almost overwhemingly salty. If I can find unsalted butter with the added ferment here I might convert to that instead, perhaps just adding a pinch of salt every so often.

One night we went out for dinner. I think if the exchange rate had been a little better I might have been tempted by Le Farรงon, which was in the same town as our chalet. Instead we went to La Taiga, which was pretty good, but I was disappointed that T was not up for something ridiculously stereotypical: a fondue! I am trying to get more in to cheese so I thought maybe this would be the way to go.

Instead T had a venison steak and I had duck breast. Mine came with a courgette gratin, which I thought was an interesting way to present courgettes. This is another one on the "to-try-at-home" list as I only really use courgettes in ratatouille or roasted vegetables. We shared an assiette of desserts, with a tiny creme brulee, a slice of chocolate terrine and miniature raspberry crumble. The chalet hosts also made a crumble, and both of them had a very crispy, sweet toppings. I usually put oats in my crumble topping, so it was immediately a bit strange to not have such a textured topping. I'm not sure whether the crispiness and excessive sweetness came from incorrect ratio of flour to sugar and butter, the vaguaries of French flour, an overly thin layer of topping, or the effects of the altitude on baked items.

The other culinary highlights of the week were the vast quantities of vin chaud I consumed, and the deli in La Tania village centre. The supermarket there catered mainly for tourists, so there was a lot of pre-packed and mass-produced stuff. The deli had a great selection of local cheeses and meat, although sadly I didn't think it would be able to survive the plane journey home. Instead I bought some Savoie pate with ceps, and a jar of local honey. I'm going to get some nice bread on the way home from uni, so that may end up being my dinner tonight.

I will try and get T's camera so I can put some pictures up!