Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Daring Baker's October - Macarons

I first discovered the macaron in March 2008, when I went to to visit H, who was doing her year abroad in Paris. We went to all the usual places, and eventually ended up in Fauchon. H told me I should get the lemon macaron. I did. It was yummy. I've considered making them at home a few times, but every time I searched for a recipe I was put off by how many results I got saying that they were tricky.

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ challenge was brought to us by Ami S. She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe. So now I couldn't put off macarons any longer.

My first attempt failed miserably. I overwhipped the batter and it was too runny to form any kind of shape. It was still tasty though.

The second attempt was a little better. I had some freeze dried raspberries after my mum found somewhere online that sold "home-sized" portions instead of wholesale. I crushed these up to make a powder, and mixed this in to the batter. It was a lovely creamy white with flecks of raspberry powder in it, and piped easily in to rounds. I dried the rounds in a low oven as suggested, and was pleased to see the beginnings of some feet on my macarons!

However, I found the 7 minutes cooking time suggested in the recipe to be too long, and my macarons went too brown. I sandwiched them with raspberry buttercream (also made with powdered raspberry). While these macarons had the chewiness of a proper macaron, they didn't have the smooth, crisp shell.

Raspberry Macarons with a tiny foot!

So on to the third attempt! This time I used lime zest, and a drop of green gel colouring. I sieved the almonds and sugar twice to make sure it was superfine (although I think if I had a food processor and could have ground the nuts even more it would have been better) and folded the mixture carefully. I watched the macarons like a hawk to ensure they didn't brown (although a couple at the back of the oven still did a little).

Lime Macarons and Fauchon Mug

As it was late, and I didn't have enough time to cool and reheat the oven for drying the second batch, I experimented a little. I left the tray of piped macarons in the oven overnight, once the temperature had dropped below 90c, then baked them this morning for 5 minutes. These ones are the smoothest, but they don't have a foot or a crispy shell! Curses!

What they lack in aesthetics they somewhat make up for in taste.

I sandwiched these with lemon curd, which gives them a good citrus hit. They taste ok, but they need a lot more work. However, the process was easy enough that I'll give macarons another go sometime soon.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Lemon Sundae

Generally I am fairly organised in the kitchen, and like to have all my ingredients and equipment out before I begin. I found some lemons in the cupboard that were on their last legs, so I decided to give a recipe for lemon biscuits a go. As I'd never tried this recipe before, and it looked a bit tricky, I went super-overboard on the mise-en-place. As well as getting my ingredients out, I pre-weighed them all, and left them out for a couple of hours to reach room temperature.

To cut a long story short, despite the extreme prep, it was an unmitigated disaster. What were meant to be crunchy little lemony biscuits turned into a big old cakey mess that was stuck to the baking tray. My first thought was to bin the whole thing, but it seemed such a waste. When I was a child, any leftovers were greeted with a remark about starving Africans, so throwing food away just makes me feel guilty. Instead, I chipped it off the baking tray and made the rest of the lemons in to some yummy lemon curd.

Lemon Sundae

It might not be very sophisticated, but the cake/biscuit fail crumbs, mixed with the fresh lemon curd and some plain yoghurt was delicious. The thing I really like about cooking is that you can be creative. As well as trying out different flavours and presentations, if something goes wrong it's usually salvageable if you are a bit creative. In this case, I liked the way the sweet biscuit, the sweetly tart curd and the plain yoghurt balanced each other out. The biscuits on their own were a bit tooth-hurtingly sweet anyway.

I love lemon curd

I might give the biscuits another go, or I might just content myself with eating this for breakfast for the next few days. Who needs a balanced diet when you can have cake sundaes?

PS - Check out the ridiculously loud coasters I bought in Russia!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

St Petersburg

It's been quiet around here as I had a fun weekend in St Petersburg. The city was founded in 1703, but already it's racked up quite a bit of history. We saw the palace where Rasputin was murdered, the graves of the last Romanovs, and the battleship that fired the first shots of the Russian revolution.

We ate quite a lot of Russian food, with the highlight of the trip actually being a Georgian meal. It's more Mediterranean than you'd expect, with a starter of cheese flatbread, trout tartare and ratatouille style vegetables. For the main course I ended up with more trout, this time with delicious fried potatoes and a herby salad. I had ordered chicken kebabs, but the linguistic barrier got in the way!


However, the real revelation was the borscht. While I've had it often at home, the Russian version was milder and often contained bits of meat too (Russian cuisine is NOT vegetarian friendly at all). I need to find this recipe as I could eat this all day! Practically every meal was served with soured cream, which was fine by me.

Normal service will return soon!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Scotch Eggs

A while back, my dad spent quite a while telling me that the perfect boiled egg was all about heating the white to a certain temperature, and that if you kept it at that temperature, it would never over-cook. As I've been reading more about the science of cookery, I've found that my dad was correct - an egg cooked at 65C will have a set white and a creamy yolk.

I've also been intrigued by the rise of the scotch egg from Greg's abomination to acceptable gastro-pub fare. They always seem to have a runny yolk, so maybe it was time to apply science to snacking.

Here comes the science bit!

Egg Number 1
Initially I thought the easiest way to keep an egg at 65C without using a fancy-pants waterbath (I don't even have enough worktop space to justify a stand mixer, let alone an water circulator) was in the oven. Although the oven was labeled 60C, it didn't seem particularly hot in there. I could comfortably put my hand in the oven and move the racks around without it burning. The oven thermometer starts at 100C, and the needle was hovering just under this, so I left an egg in there for about 45 minutes.

After the egg had cooled down a bit, I cracked it open. It wasn't firm enough to peel and so in that respect was an epic fail. However, I scooped the egg out of the shell and ate it, and it was amazingly delicious. The yolk was runny and rich, and the white was cooked but still creamy and soft. The only way it could have been better was if there had been some buttered soldiers to dip in it.

Egg Number 2
Next up I decided to try a water bath. Using a sugar thermometer, I heated a saucepan of water to 65C. I was surprised to find that by putting my hob on the lowest setting, that I could maintain this temperature very easily. I occasionally added a little cold water if the temperature started rising, but I only had to do this about twice in the hour or so that I cooked the egg for.

I cracked it open, and initially was quite pleased - the white was set enough to be able to peel the egg, but still wobbly enough to suggest that the yolk would be runny. However, as I continued peeling, it became obvious that the egg was far too fragile to put in to a scotch egg. As I took off the last pieces of shell, the egg collapsed completely.

By some fluke of science, I'd created an inverted egg. The yolk was completely set, and was like a little orange pebble in a pile of white gooey jelly. I ate this egg too. It wasn't as tasty as the first one, but the yolk, while set, was still moist. I'd be quite interested in using this method again to create set yolks that could be used as a garnish or as a component in a dish.

What had happened was that the yolk proteins had set at 65C, as had some of the white proteins. However, one of the proteins in the yolk doesn't set until 80C, so this egg obviously had a higher ratio of this high temperature protein and thus the white was still quite runny.

Egg Number 3
By this point, the leftover sausages that I was planning to use for the scotch eggs were dangerously close to their use-by date. So I wimped out and put two eggs in a cold pan of water, brought them to the boil, and simmered for 8 minutes. They were pretty standard hardboiled eggs.

In future, I think I'd go for a two stage process to find the perfect peelable boiled egg. First a lovely bath at 63-64C, to firm up the white, but keep the yolk runny. Then a quick dip (1-2 minutes) in a 90C bath to firm out the outer layer of the white, so it's possible to peel it without it falling apart. Then maybe a quick shock in iced water to ensure they don't over cook. Hmmm, several different baths and a peel, sounds like a day at a spa hotel.

Baked Scotch Egg

The actual scotch eggs were fairly simple to make - mash up a load of sausage meat (about 2 sausages per egg) and wrap this around the boiled egg. Then roll the egg in some seasoned flour, some beaten egg, and then breadcrumbs. I seasoned the breadcrumbs with a little cayenne pepper to give them a bit of a kick. As you can see from the photos, my wrapping wasn't entirely even, but that wasn't too much of a problem.

Uneven but tasty

As with most Scottish items, a proper Scotch Egg is deep fried. I didn't really want to do this, so I baked them at 200C for 30 minutes, and finished them off in the frying pan to get the breadcrumbs crispy. I think the sausage meat insulates the egg quite well, as when I finally got to scoff the eggs they yolk was still quite moist and not overcooked. They were also delicious later on when they'd been chilled for a while. Even though I'd baked them, you could feel the cholesterol destroying your arteries as you chewed. Perhaps this is not the recipe to repeat until I perfect it...

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Millionaire Shortbread with Salted Caramel

When I was at primary school, my class was selected for an academic survey. We had to fill out a questionnaire detailing our parents' level of education and various other lifestyle questions. I guess this was then correlated with our academic achievement to see if certain households were more likely to produce academically successful children than others. The reason I still remember this is that we had to write down how many books were in our house. I lost count after about 250.

My mum loves books, and sometimes buys random books just because she likes the look of them. She also has a magic ability to find books on special offer or discounted, and she recently sent me Harry Eastwood's "Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache" as she was concerned that I eat too much cake!

Chocolate And Salted Caramel Squillionaire

There were quite a few recipes that appealed, but as I had a tub of caramel sitting in the fridge already, I decided to make the "Chocolate and Salted Caramel Squillionaire", which I then realised was the only recipe in the book that didn't contain vegetables. Oh well.

The addition of golden syrup to the biscuit base gave it a nice toffee flavour, and baking the base before adding the caramel and chocolate made it super crispy. I did think there was a bit too much biscuit base though, next time I would probably only use 250g instead of 300g of digestives.

I also liked using the salted caramel and really dark chocolate topping, as it counteracted the sweetness of the caramel and the base. They're a little bit more grown up than the usual millionaire's shortbread. Although the recipe says it makes 12, I cut mine in to 16 and they are still a decent size.

So yummy they make me lose focus...

I'm really excited to try some of the other recipes, although I agree with this review that the descriptions of the recipes can be rather annoyingly cutesy...

They don't last long.

Chocolate and Salted Caramel Squillionaire (Harry Eastwood - Red Velvet & Chocolate Heartache)
Serves 12

397g tin of condensed milk
100g unsalted butter (melted)
3 tbsp golden syrup
300g digestive biscuits
pinch of sea salt
150g very dark chocolate

1) Preheat the oven to 180C, and line a 22cm square brownie tin with baking paper.
2) In a large and sturdy pan, put the (unopened) can of condensed milk. Fill the pan with boiling water so the tin is completely covered. Boil for one hour, topping up the water as needed.
3) Meanwhile, put the melted butter and golden syrup in a bowl, and put it in the oven or in the microwave to melt the syrup and butter together. (Make sure the bowl is oven/microwave proof!) It won't take long, 5 minutes in the oven or 1 minute in the microwave.
4) Crush the biscuits, either with a food processor or by putting them in a plastic bag and whacking it with a rolling pin. Get them really crushed, so the mixture looks like fine sand.
5) Mix in the hot butter and syrup with the biscuits. It should now look like wet sand!
6) Push the biscuit mixture in to the tin, squashing it down with your hand or the back of a spoon. Prick the surface with a fork to let out any air bubbles, and then bake for 20 minutes until golden. Leave it to cool while the caramel finishes it's bath.
7) Carefully remove the tin from the boiling water, and open it. Mix in a pinch of salt, and then pour it over the biscuit base, making sure it spreads out to cover the whole base. Put it in the freezer to cool down for at least 20 minutes as you need the caramel to be set when you pour the chocolate over.
8) Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Once it is thoroughly melted, pour it over the frozen caramel and biscuit base. Put it in the fridge to chill.
9) After the chocolate has hardened, cut in to portions and serve!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Afternoon Tea at the Underground Restaurant

I've been following Miss Marmite Lover's blog on hosting an illegal restaurant in her living room for some while, and had wanted to pay a visit for some time. Fate seemed to conspire against me, and although I made it to London a couple of times, other plans always got in the way.

Last weekend the Domestic Sluts were hosting a tea party at the Underground Restaurant. Last weekend I was free in the afternoon. I bought a ticket online, spent an hour on the TFL website trying to work out the best way to Kilburn without using the tube or overland (both of which were shut), put on my best tea dress and headed "underground"...

Like all good parties, as I approached the front door I could hear chatter and the clinking of bottles. I was a little nervous that I might be gatecrashing some random gathering, but it seemed I'd found the right flat after all.

Inside the flat, I settled on the balcony with a glass of kir royale. I got talking with some of the other guests, one of whom wondered why restaurants such as this were illegal. Thinking about it, running a home restaurant seems to be quite a bureaucratic crime - you'll get prosecuted for failure to pay business rates or submit to a hygiene inspection (but as guests are welcome in the kitchen once the food is done, the food hygiene standards are more transparent than most legal restaurants).

Some of the Domestic Sluts

After a suitable amount of mingling time, we settled at the tables for tea. We helped ourselves to a plate on sandwiches already on the table. There were Marmite sandwiches, and I'd never tried Marmite, so I went for one of them straight away. I'd been put off by the smell in the past, and was expecting to fall in the "hate it" camp. Surprisingly, I found Marmite completely inoffensive, and was totally ambivalent about it. I must be the exception that proves the rule.

Also on the table already was a big old plate of homemade scones and jam (no cream - this came later by which point I'd eaten all the scones. Oops.) which did not last long. We also had aga meringues which were shatteringly crisp on the outside, but ridiculously chewy on the inside. I used the cream to sandwich bits of meringue together, it was very good.

Full marks to all the waiting crew, who furnished us with almost endless pots of tea. They also brought round sundried tomato and anchovy tartlets, squash and feta parcels, hot buttered crumpets, carrot cupcakes, rum and ginger cupcakes (awesome) and orange biscuits. There were also chocolate macarons, which were absolutely delicious.

Kitchen Porn

All the food was homemade, and I went to the kitchen when things started winding down to have a nose around and meet Miss MarmiteLover herself. The kitchen wasn't overly big (which made the quantity of food that came out of it even more impressive), but it was a cook's kitchen. Here the Madeleine tin gets to sit brazenly on a shelf, while in my kitchen it's languishing at the back of a cupboard. I was seriously coveting this kitchen. I loved it even more as it featured my new favourite kitchen gadget - the Ikea steppy stool to allow short people to reach high cupboards! (Worryingly, it's advertised as a kid's item.)

The Steppy Stool

I wouldn't review the Underground Restaurant in exactly the same way I would a normal restaurant, as it's a completely different concept. I didn't mind not getting a choice of food, and I really liked talking to the random people on my table. Where else do you get to discuss American health care policy, Vivienne Westwood shoes and a dodgy Turkish boyfriend with strangers? It's much closer to a dinner party, and quite a civilised one at that.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Hawksmoor - Beyond the Hype?

In a fortuitous and unlikely chain of events, I found myself at Hawksmoor with a group of Qypers. I've only been on Qype a while, and hadn't even heard this event was happening, but Jess managed to wangle me a ticket after someone else pulled out at the last minute.

I've read lots about Hawksmoor on various blogs, and was excited to finally have an excuse the visit there. Someone lovely at Qype had also arranged for us to have free wine and cocktails, which is always a plus.

I'm going to come out and say it - Hawksmoor really didn't impress me at all. The waiter who met us at the door seemed surprised to see us, and struggled to find our reservation on the system (I could see it, it was right in the middle of the screen!). The waitress didn't see particularly interested in taking our drinks orders, and it took 5 of us surrounding her before she finally wrote them down. Although she was able to give us some recommendations of cocktails, it was a good 20 minutes before they turned up - apparently the bar was busy. The cocktails weren't that great either, and lacked some of the subtlety I've seen in other cocktail bars. The Hawksmoor Fizz was quite nice though, although the one I ordered for myself never turned up.

We ordered our meals just before 8. The starters turned up about 8.30, which given that most of them were cold (with the exception of the belly ribs) was a bit too long to wait. The waitress left after she'd delivered our starters, leaving us to fetch our own wine from the cooler. My crab was uninspiring, and accompanied by a rather paltry slice of overly chewy bread and a tiny cup of mayonnaise. It was also described as "dressed" on the menu, but in reality this just meant that there was some mayonnaise already mixed in with the crab meat, but no noticeable egg or seasoning. While the belly ribs seemed to go down well, the oysters and smoked salmon ordered by Tim and Judith either side of me also failed to go beyond the norm.

Crab and not much bread

The main courses arrived just after 9pm, by which point Jess and I had been in the restaurant for over 2 hours. Admittedly we were a bit early, but I was ravenous by now. I'd ordered a share of an enormous porterhouse, which fortunately arrived ready sliced. However, I was initially given someone else's ribeye, although I hadn't started eating it by the time the waitress realised the mistake. We had a large selection of sides, of which the triple cooked chips were the only ones that were above average. The potato gratin and the macaroni cheese were a little underseasoned, and tomato salad was overwhelmed by a pungent mint dressing.

900g of Porterhouse perfection

The steak was very very good though. It had a lovely chargrilled crust, but was still pink and melting inside. It was the best steak I've had in a long time, possibly ever. This is the sort of meat that you still think about months later. We'd been warned about the bone, but not about the fat. Although fat and bone make meat taste better, we wanted a rare steak so the fat isn't really needed to baste the meat, as for longer cooked cuts. It seemed a bit cheap to include a massive fatty rind on our steak when they were charging by the gram. Trimming the fat down wouldn't have altered the taste or texture, but would have saved us a bit of money. We weren't offered sauces for the steaks either, only tiny cups of ketchup and herb mayonnaise that came with the chips. The steaks didn't particularly need sauce, but the choice would have been nice.

By the time we got on to pudding, it was 10.30. It took us a while to get through the 3.5kgs of meat on the table, but it also took the waitress a while to clear our plates and bring us the dessert menu. I had a gin and lemon sorbet, which was refreshing but not that memorable. I also ate quite a bit of Jess's chocolate fudge sundae, complete with brownie bits. Again, it was decent but not worth trekking across London for.

Then the bill came. We'd lucked out on having free drinks, but it was still £45 a head for food alone. The steaks were completely worth the £20 or so we paid, but I really questioned whether the rest of the food had been worth £25. I felt we were paying fine dining prices for food that had been mostly average, and some of the slowest service I've seen. The waitress did highlight that the service charge was optional, but as we felt guilty for abusing the free wine somewhat, we paid it anyway. (As a side note, this was one of the most painless bill paying experiences ever. Within minutes of dividing the bill, everyone had handed over their money, taken their change, and there was no quibbling about who ate what! I need to hang out with random people from the internet more often.)

Looking more closely through the other reviews of Hawksmoor, it seems that many other people have noted that the service is painfully slow. I don't see why, when most steaks can be cooked in around 10-15 minutes (especially somewhere that attracts hardcore meat lovers; who are probably more likely to order it rare or medium), and the menu is fairly restricted. You'd also think that they'd make a bit more of an effort for a booking made under the name of a well known review website!

If you love steak, or if you want to love steak, then visit Hawksmoor. You'll be converted to worship at the altar of beef. Just don't bother with much else on the menu.

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