Friday, 29 January 2010

Chocolate Brownies with Chestnuts & Figs

The only cookbook I got for Christmas was Ottolenghi. This was good, as my cookbook shelf is full, and I didn't want the usual semi-novelty cookbooks I usually seem to receive ('101 Biscuit Recipes' anyone?)

I had a packet of chestnuts in the cupboard leftover, so I decided to make Khalid's Chestnut & Chocolate Bars.

The digestive base was easy enough, and the chocolate mix for the top was also very simple, with the most strenuous part being chopping a large pile of chestnuts, figs and white chocolate. It went in the oven, and came out very, very, very wobbly. So it went back in the oven for another 10 minutes and was still wobbly. The recipe said it wouldn't be totally cooked, but I didn't expect it to basically look the same as when it went in. I put it in the fridge to see if that would harden it up. Maybe the chocolate would set solid.

A few hours later, it was still way too wobbly. I tried to turn it out of the tin (luckily I'd used a silicone one) but it was obviously going to end in disaster. I gave it another 10 minutes in the oven, but it was STILL wobbly! I shoved it back in the fridge as I was not in the mood to deal with a massive pile of fail goo at that moment.

The next day I was immersed in the domestic bliss that is the life of the self/un-employed. After warming up with bouts of bed making, laundry and sweeping, I decided to deal with the fail. I thought I might spoon some over ice cream and bin the rest.

It had set! I was not expecting that at all. A bit of a push and it popped out of the tin in one lovely firm lump, and sliced up with a crisp finish that is just so satisfying.

After all the abuse I'd put it through, I wondered whether it would taste any good. The chocolate mix was flourless, so although it was firmer than it should have been, it was still moist, almost like a giant truffle. The chestnut and the figs were there, but weren't as overpowering as I'd worried they might be, but not really that flavourful either.

Chestnut & Fig Brownie Bars

I guess I'll have to give this another go before I reject the recipe altogether, but I wasn't that impressed. It was just digestives with a eggy ganache on top, with no stand out flavours or textures. Not offensive, but just not that amazing either.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

January Daring Bakers - Nanaimo Bars

The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and

I first discovered Nanaimo Bars while driving round the Canadian Rockies. I left mine in the car while checking out a lake, and it melted. When we got to Peyto lake, I buried it in some snow, and by the time I returned to the car, it was solidified again. Woo!

As well as being excited to make Nanaimo bars, I was also interested in gluten free Graham crackers. I've had a lot of requests for GF stuff on the stall, and I wanted to know what Graham crackers tasted like.

I couldn't find sorghum flour anywhere, and internet searches revealed that UK sorghum is rarely truly gluten free. Instead, I used more white rice flour to replace it.

The Graham crackers were otherwise uneventful. As mentioned in the recipe, the dough is very sticky and soft, and quite hard to work with. Despite flouring the surface loads, only 2 or 3 crackers out of each attempt were sturdy enough to make it off the worktop and on to the baking tray. Patience and a lot of re-rolling was necessary.

Graham Crackers

I didn't really like the taste. The honey flavour was a bit sickly, although the texture was very similar to digestives, which are often cited as the nearest thing the UK has to Graham crackers. I ground up the rest to use in the base of the Nanaimo bars.

I pretty much followed the recipe, except for the coconut. I failed to measure how much was left in the packet before writing the shopping list, so I only had half the amount needed. To make up for the missing coconut, I added in some oats as well.

Nanaimo Bars

The custard layer was incredibly thick, and it wasn't helped that the current weather meant that the kitchen as freezing, so the butter was very hard. I was worried that the custard powder made it taste chalky, but I hoped the other elements would make up for this in the finished product.

Finally, I topped the bars off with dark chocolate ganache. It was tricky to stop the warm chocolate seeping in to the custard layer, so it was important to cool the chocolate and work quickly to stop the custard melting. Once the chocolate layer was chilled, I turned out the bars and cut them in to shape.

Coconut, oat, almond & chocolate base, custard filling, chocolate topping.

They were just how I remembered. The sickliness of the Graham crackers was lost in the chocolate and coconut of the bottom layer, and the chalkiness of the custard had also disappeared. The chocolate topping mirrored the bottom layer nicely. Another great challenge from the Daring Bakers!

Monday, 25 January 2010

Hot Spiced Mead - A Winter Warmer Cocktail

Although the German market in Edinburgh disappeared long ago, the Highland market was around until New Year. When we visited on New Year's Day, we all had sore throats from the partying the night before, as well as sore heads. After some tasty burgers from Well Hung & Tender, we found a stall selling hot mead, which we hoped would be soothing as well as restorative.

It was indeed both, and quizzed the girl behind the counter for the ingredients. Mead, wine, honey, sugar, apple juice and spices were in there, but she wasn't sure of the quantities.

I'd forgotten about it until the other day, when perusing the alcoholic offerings of the local deli in search of something to cheer me up in the darkest days of January. Some mead was purchased, quickly spiced, heated and drunk.

Cinnamon, cloves, star anise, mace.

I left out the apple juice, but reduced the alcohol content by gently simmering the drink for a minute or so before serving. I used a similar selection of spices to that of mulled wine - cinnamon, cloves, star anise and mace. Without the apple juice, I substituted a good squeeze of lemon to make it a bit fruitier. Annoyingly, it was only after I finished drinking that I thought I should have put a shot of Cointreau in there to get a zesty edge to the flavour.

Hot Spiced Mead

Hot Spiced Mead
Serves 1 - but can be easily multiplied to make more, you don't need to add more spices unless you are making more than 4-5 portions.

2.5 ladles of mead
1.5 ladles of white wine
0.3 ladles of sugar
1tbsp honey
good squeeze of lemon juice
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
4 cloves
1 blade mace

Place everything in a saucepan, and stir to dissolve the sugar and honey. Simmer the liquid gently for 30 secs to soften the alcoholic impact (but don't boil it all off!) and serve.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Duck Confit

I have been fighting the urge for the last month to make endless puns about Cold Confit Farm, and seeing something nasty in the fridge. While T is a knowledgeable type, unfortunately this knowledge does not include pre-war satirical novels. Or iconic French ways with water fowl.

When I first suggested making duck confit, T did not sound impressed. The idea of duck legs encased in a kilo of fat did not sound appealing. However, I bloody love a bit of duck confit, so stocked up on legs and fat and got to it.

I went with a Valentine Warner recipe, as I felt his enthusiasm and simplicity would be better than going with something more complex and elaborate. The recipe began by curing the duck for 2 days, with salt, herbs and juniper berries. Gin flavoured duck!

Then the legs were simmered in fat and white wine for 2 hours on a very low heat. I didn't quite have enough duck fat to cover the legs, so I topped up the pot with a little lard. Yum.

We had stuff in the fridge that needed using up, so it was a few days before I excavated 2 legs from the tub of fat and stuck them in a hot oven for 15 minutes. To go with it, I stewed some lentils in herbs and red wine, and sauteed some potatoes in the duck fat I'd scraped off the legs.

Duck Confit

It lived up to and beyond expectations. I think it helped that the potatoes were some of the best I've ever done, and the earthiness of the lentils helped to tone down the richness of the duck a bit. But that duck...! It was tender, flavourful, with crispy skin and the residual taste of the aromatic cure. If I could have gnawed on the bones I would have.

Look at the crispiness!

Duck Confit (From 'What To Eat Now' by Valentine Warner)
Makes 8

Juniper berries
8 duck legs
750g duck fat
150ml white wine

1) Rub each duck leg with salt and pepper. Layer in a tub with sprigs of rosemary and thyme, and some bruised juniper berries. Leave for at least 24 hours, and ideally 48.
2) Brush the salt and aromatics off the duck legs, while melting the duck fat in a pan on a low heat.
3) Arrange the duck legs in the pan with the fat, and add the wine. I found arranging them in an overlapping circle worked best - the shinbone from each leg rest on the thigh of the one next to it, so the meat is submerged. Duck fat melts at quite a low temperature, so you can do this without worrying too much about spitting fat or getting burnt. If you can't get all the meat under the fat, add more fat.
4) Adjust the heat so the fat is barely bubbling. The lower the heat, the better. Put a tight lid on the pan and check it frequently to see if it's too hot or cold.
5) After 2 hours, take a leg out and try to push the meat away from the bone. It should fall off with a bit of pressure, but obviously don't take it off the bone yet! Just give it a prod to see if it is coming away from the bone. If it still seems too solid, put it back in the pan for another 20-30 minutes.
6) Once the meat is releasing from the bone, gently stack the legs in a glass, china or plastic container. When the fat is cooled (but still pourable) pour this over the legs. The fat will help seal the legs from bacteria, so they will last for ages in the fridge.
7) When you want to eat the confit, put your oven up to about 200c, or its highest setting. Excavate the required legs from the fat, and put them in a deep baking dish (quite a lot of fat will come out of them so you don't want it slopping over your oven.) Cook for 15 minutes until the skin is crispy.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Spicy Bacon & Cheddar Scones

If I were the Pioneer Woman, I'd tell you this recipe makes my skirt fly up. If I was Deb of Smitten Kitchen, I'd tell you you'll regret every minute you wait to make this recipe, and then post a picture of my cute baby. If I worked for Word Of Mouth, I'd say that I subbed Cheddar for Gruyere as I was staying true to my working class roots. If I was living in London, I'd worry about whether I should reveal that half the ingredients were PR freebies, start writing about unctuous pork, and then get so stressed out that I'd just blog about going to Tayyabs for dinner instead.

It's not skirt wearing weather, I don't have a cute (or plain, or ugly, or any type at all) baby, I'm not that working class, and all of the ingredients were bought with my own money. So there.

I've been doing an after work craft market in a bar, so I decided to make some savoury items to capture the crowd who aren't up for a pint of beer and a chocolate cupcake. After sifting through a huge pile of cookbooks for inspiration, I settled on the spicy bacon & gruyere scones from 'Bake' by Rachel Allen.

Bacon & Cheddar Scone

I changed from gruyere to cheddar for purely economic purposes. Baking is a fairly low margin product. When you add up the number of hours of labour I put in, minus costs, I'm lucky to make anywhere near minimum wage. Every penny counts in this game. Although I did buy free range bacon, because I'm not that cheap.

The recipe was fairly simple, although I was worried that the mixture was looking rather dry after adding the butter. I'd forgotten that buttermilk came in later, which took it to the other extreme of being too wet. The recipe says not to knead the dough, which is hard, as it doesn't seem to want to come together. Although the dough is quite sticky, it is fairly robust. This makes it quite easy to scrape the scones off the counter and on to the baking tray without them falling apart.

They rose really well, and had that stretchy look around the edges that is the mark of a good scone. Most of the time I don't try more than the crumbs of stuff I've made for the stall. Eating the produce is not great hygiene, as well as depriving me of much needed profit. However, there was a small blob of dough leftover that wasn't really big enough to sell, so I baked that as well to try it.

They smelt fantastic coming out of the oven, and I could barely wait for them to be cool before eating the mini one. The outside had a bit of crunch, while the inside was soft and airy (buttermilk is one of the best ingredients for airy baking, it's just a bit tricky to find!). The cheese flavour was clear, with a subtle spicy tingle from the cayenne. When you hit a lump of bacon, it went to the next level of deliciousness. The pre-cooking followed by baking meant that the bacon was crispy, and the fat had rendered in to the surrounding dough. My limited grasp of English vocabulary is not enough to describe how great these scones are.

Airy texture, with bacon peeking out.

Spicy Bacon & Cheddar Scones (From 'Bake')
Makes 10-20 depending on cutter size

450g plain flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
30g cold butter
110g bacon, cooked and finely chopped (this cooks down to less than 110g, use more if you love bacon)
110g cheddar, finely grated (use gruyere if not being cheap)
1 egg
375ml buttermilk (or milk)

1) Preheat oven to 220C, Gas 7
2) Sift the flour, baking soda, cayenne and salt in a large bowl. Rub in the butter until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Mix in the bacon and cheese.
3) Combine the buttermilk and the egg in a jug, and add it to the dry ingredients.
4) Stir until the mixture forms a dough. Turn it out on to a floured surface, and gently fold to fully incorporate all the ingredients.
5) Roll the dough out to about 2cm thick, and cut out the scones. I used a 3inch cutter to make monster scones, but you could use a smaller cutter, or even cut the dough in to squares.
6) Place the scones on a floured baking tray and bake for 10-16 minutes (depending on size). Cool on a wire rack for as long as you can bear, and then eat warm.

While these are best eaten straight away, they can be reheated at 160c for 6 minutes, although this does make the outside a little too crunchy. Sprinkle with water before reheating to minimise this.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Raspberry & Whisky Porridge

I can't say I'm a major porridge fan. I didn't eat it as a child, and have been put off as an adult by poor catering porridge as suffered in various youth hostels and halls of residence. However, it is cheap and filling, so I do give it a go every now and then.

I'm always looking for new ways to pep it up. Chocolate and ground hazelnuts are always nice, as is dulche de leche and dried fruit. Today I tried a variation based the Cranachan porridge served by Stoats.

Raspberry & Whisky Porridge

I cooked the oats in a mixture of half milk and half water, and sprinkled in a pinch of salt and a fair bit of sugar. Then I added dried raspberries, which softened up as the porridge cooked. If you had fresh or frozen raspberries they would be even better. While rummaging through the cupboard for more Scottish ingredients, I found a whisky miniature. In it went.

Gloopy & Boozy

The porridge was a bit looser than I would have liked, and some of the dried raspberries were a little bitter. The whisky added some nice warmth to the bowl, which was welcome in this weather. I lasted a good 9 hours on this, so it was a good start to the day, although maybe not if you have to drive to work.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Tarte Tatin

For New Year, we had T's brother, and 2 of their cousins staying in the flat. We had tickets for the outdoor concert in Princes Street Gardens, and the temperature was forecast to be -5C that night. With a few extra mouths to feed, and a warming meal needed, I decided to make a roast dinner followed by tarte tatin.

I attempted a tarte tatin last summer. It didn't go well. The pastry was undercooked and underwhelming, and the caramel wasn't sticky enough. I was determined that this one would be better, and decided to go with trusty old Leiths' recipe.

The first thing I noticed is that the pastry wasn't puff, or even ordinary shortcrust. It had rice flour as well as wheat flour. The pastry came together quite easily, who needs a food processor when you have a pastry blender? I rolled it in to a large disc between two sheets of baking paper.

Tarte Tatin

While the pastry was resting in the fridge, I chopped two cooking apples, and melted sugar and butter together in a frying pan. Leiths said to add lemon zest, but I decided a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg would be a bit more seasonal and warming. I layered the apple slices around the pan, and tried my best to make them look neat and even, but the in the end my presentation efforts were thwarted by my short attention span, and unwillingness to dip my fingers in boiling caramel.

Once the caramel had cooled slightly, I put the pastry lid on, and left it in the fridge until we'd finished our roast dinner. Once it went in the oven, the smell of the apples and caramel, with a hint of the spices, was wafting around the flat. It smelt great, but would the pastry be cooked? Would the caramel be ok, and would the cooking apples still be sour?

Mmmmm, leftover tart...

When it came time to turn the tart out on to a plate, it was obvious the pastry was cooked. The apples looked soft and sweet, and the caramel looked dark and glossy - success! Except, the very caramel in the centre of the tart was a little burnt. So not quite perfect, but near enough.

It was delicious served warm with a scoop of natural ice cream (plain cream flavour, no vanilla. I bought it by accident once and am now converted.) The spices warmed it up even more, and the caramel was almost right (apart from the burnt bit). The apples were soft, but still retained their shape and a bit of crispiness. We got through most of it that night, but I've been enjoying the leftovers reheated with ice cream. Or on their own.