Monday, 5 November 2018

Speculoos – The Domesticated And Eggless Version

For years I thought of speculoos as the little, wrapped biscuits that often accompanied a bad cup of coffee at conferences and business meetings where people said "going forward" a lot. Then I discovered the almost fanatical devotion to this biscuit in Belgium and northern France and I realised that speculoos must have hidden depths. These days I've long since given up the conferences and the "going forward" people but I've learned to love one or two speculoos alongside good coffee (or tea if you're making it). There's no shortage of the mass-produced, commercial product (whatever they choose to call them these days) but a lot of bakers in northern France, both professional and amateur, make their own. Many of these are more substantial than the usual commercial biscuit and a little different in texture too.

Most of the recipes I've come across add egg to the mixture but I've been told that egg isn't truly authentic (although I admit that it does make the dough easier to handle). As usual, there's a very good chance that what I've been told isn't true but I really wanted to try an eggless version in order to recreate some of the northern French variants of this little treat. So, after a bit of faffing about with different mixtures, this is my eggless recipe. The resulting biscuit is firmer and denser than most commercial offerings but is much closer to the ones served with coffee in some of the secretive speculoos dens of northern France. (I could say more but the first rule of speculoos club is "shut up and eat your biscuit").

This is a very simple recipe that can be adapted to suit pretty much any size, shape or flavouring you fancy. Some bakers use a much more complex spice mix than mine, but, on the other hand, there are some who stick to cinnamon and regard even the use of a little cardamom as a modern aberration.
Speculoos
This will make quite a few biscuits. You can create pretty much any size or shape as the mood takes you, but as a guide I used a 5 cm round cutter and got 36 biscuits with a thickness of roughly 5 mm out of this amount of dough. You can also make domed, macaroon or amaretti shaped biscuits that are excellent for sitting on a saucer beside your espresso by simply pulling off small pieces of dough and shaping them roughly into balls before baking. The biscuits keep well in an airtight container.

175 g brown sugar (I generally use a mixture of light muscovado and soft brown sugar)
140 g unsalted butter, softened
250 g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1½ tsp cinnamon (or more if you feel like it)
A pinch or two of freshly grated nutmeg
A pinch or two of ground ginger
Seeds of 3 or 4 cardamom pods, crushed

Cream the butter and sugar together thoroughly. Add the flour, baking powder and spices and beat together well. The dough will be stiff, but that's the way it should be. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for about an hour. If you leave it to chill for longer, then it's best to let it warm up just a little before using.

Preheat the oven to 170°C. The dough won't roll out easily, so I think it's easiest to pull chunks of the dough off the ball and simply flatten them on a board to a thickness of around 5 mm. You can then use a pastry cutter to cut out any size or shape you like or roll into balls (see above). Place the shaped biscuits on lined baking sheets and bake in the preheated oven. The 5 cm biscuits will take around 10 minutes. To be honest, it's not that easy to judge when they're ready. Normally, I'd look for a change of colour in a biscuit as it bakes, but these are brown before they go into the oven. It's safest to do a quick trial bake of one or two biscuits to be sure.

Allow the biscuits to cool for a few minutes on their baking trays before sliding onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Speculoos

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Normandy Lamb With Mint

I've been rereading 'Flaubert’s Parrot' by Julian Barnes, which is a funny, sad, literary novel from the 1980s and in my lightweight view is one of the finest written during my lifetime. Mr Barnes refers to the Normandy travels of the Reverend George Musgrave Musgrave (that's his name, not an accidental duplicate word) and, in particular, a conversation he reports in his 1855 book 'A Ramble Through Normandy'. The Reverend Musgrave amuses himself by questioning  'a thriving merchant of Rouen' who, despite being 'upwards of sixty years old', had never heard of mint sauce! Of course, the Reverend 'advised him to take up a new set of notions on English cookery'. It isn't what the Reverend intended but I was reminded of this dish from Normandy.

Some French people (well, Parisians, at least) can still be very dismissive of British food. In my experience, if you try to defend British cooking to them, then you might well get the response, ‘But you serve lamb with a sauce made from mint.’ (The word ‘mint’ should be accompanied by a truly disgusted but slightly pitying look.)

I've never really understood this because the French are not entirely averse to serving lamb with mint themselves, as in this dish. You can find some excellent lamb in Normandy, especially the lamb raised on the salt marshes. Most Normandy salt-marsh lamb, it seems, never leaves Normandy but Welsh salt-marsh lamb is also excellent if you can find it. The local crème fraîche d'Isigny is justifiably famous too if you can get some but another crème fraîche would be fine as a stand-in. This is old-school Normandy cooking and I must admit that the aromas drifting from a classic Normandy kitchen are pretty much guaranteed to transport me to a very happy place. Presumably that was also true for the Reverend Musgrave not to mention Flaubert; although I can't say the same for his parrot since it appears that it was stuffed.

Normandy Lamb With Mint
I'm a bit of a fan of lamb neck fillet – it's an adaptable cut that's generally not too expensive. It's excellent for slower cooking, but good quality neck fillet responds well to more rapid cooking too. You do need to take a bit of care to ensure that the sinews are trimmed off, though. I used 2 small fillets weighing just over 200 g each, which should comfortably serve 2 people. If the fillets are larger, you may need to adjust the cooking times a little.

1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
A little butter for frying and finishing the sauce
300 ml cider, preferably dry but not too dry
2 or 3 sprigs of mint, plus a few extra leaves
2 lamb neck fillets
A generous dash of calvados (or a little more cider if you don't have any to hand)
3 – 4 tbsp thick crème fraîche

Melt a little butter in an ovenproof frying pan. Soften the shallot in the butter over a gentle heat without allowing it to colour. If you're really gentle, then this will probably take around 15 minutes. Add the cider to the pan, bring to the boil and continue boiling until the cider is reduced by about half. Lower the heat and add the sprigs of mint to the pan (keep the few extra leaves aside for later). Simmer for another minute, then pour the contents of the pan into a jug and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Give the pan a quick wipe, put it back on the heat and melt a little more butter. Season the lamb, place in the pan and fry until it's lightly brown on all sides. Transfer the pan to the oven and roast for 5 or 6 minutes. This will be fine for small fillets, but if they're larger or you just like well-done lamb, then leave them in the oven for 2 or 3 minutes longer.

Put the lamb fillets aside somewhere warm to rest while you finish the sauce. Pour off any excess fat from the pan (remember the pan will be hot from the oven – I've been known to forget). Put the pan back on the heat and deglaze with the calvados. Remove the mint sprigs from the cider mixture and pour it back into the pan. Bring up to simmering point and stir in the crème fraîche. Adjust the seasoning, stir in a small knob of butter and keep the sauce warm while you slice the lamb and chop the remaining mint leaves. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve and stir in the chopped mint. Arrange the lamb slices on warmed plates and pour over the sauce. Serve immediately.

I think some simple new potatoes and green beans sit nicely alongside this dish but something like a potato rösti would work pretty well too.
Normandy Salt Marsh
I'm submitting this to the latest Novel Food event hosted by Simona Carini at briciole with apologies that the connection between the novel and this dish is just about as obtuse as is usual for me. I'd recommend ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ to anyone who wants to read an excellent, literary novel but if you're ever inclined to read ‘A Ramble Through Normandy’ then I feel I should warn you that the Reverend Musgrave could never be accused of breviloquence and it might be quicker to go for a ramble through Normandy for yourself.

While I'm on the subject of Julian Barnes I would also strongly recommend his collection of essays ‘The Pedant In The Kitchen’, especially if you've ever tried to write down a recipe for others to read.


Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

In the early 1990s dulce de leche was in every supermarket and every recipe magazine. You just couldn't avoid it unless you hid in a cave far from civilisation. In those long lost days I decided it would be a spiffing idea to use the abundant supply of dulce de leche to make some ice cream. It turned out to be very easy to put together and very pleasant indeed to eat. And so I kept making it. In fact, I made it so often that people begged me to stop kindly suggested that I should maybe try another flavour.

So I moved on to other types of iced delight and forgot all about dulce de leche ice cream. Then, a few days ago, I came across a notebook from my younger days that wittered on about this ice cream and I really wanted to try it one more time. My very cheap ice cream machine is a simple freeze-ahead bowl type that's not particularly efficient but that's all you need for this ice cream. In fact, you could make this without a machine at all if you put the mixture in the freezer and wizz it up in a food processor part way through freezing. (Some of the basic ice cream machines available these days are a fair bit less expensive than in the 1990s and I think that they're not a bad investment if you're keen on a bit of ice cream).
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream
It may be my memory playing tricks but there did seem to be more uniformity in the dulce de leche that was available back in the 1990s. It always seemed to be thick and very smooth. Some of the product available now seems a little thinner and, as a result, you may need to vary the amount of dulce de leche that you use in the recipe. Back then I used roughly half an average jar (225 g) but you may need to increase that amount a little. The idea is to create something that's the thickness of a custard and coats the back of a wooden spoon in the first stage of this recipe. Of course, I'm assuming that you don't have time to make your own dulce de leche, but I applaud you if you do make the effort.

I reckon that this serves around six people but that does depend on just how much you like ice cream and what you feel like serving with it.

225 g - 300 g (depending on thickness, see above) dulce de leche
340 ml full fat milk
225 g whipping (or double) cream
2 tsp Frangelico liqueur (you can leave this out or add a different liqueur if that’s what you have or what you fancy)

Dissolve the dulce de leche thoroughly in the milk by heating gently and stirring continuously. It won't take long to dissolve but be careful to avoid the mixture boiling. This should create a “custard” that coats the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat and chill thoroughly.

Combine the chilled “custard” with the cream and liqueur. Pour into the ice cream machine and let it do its stuff.

I usually made fresh batches of this ice cream shortly before eating it but if it's stored in the freezer for a while then it will be better if softened for 20 minutes or so in the fridge before serving.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Gâteau au Chocolat de Nancy

I have it on good authority that this is an ancient type of gâteau from Nancy in north-eastern France although I have to confess that I couldn't find a recipe that's older than the 1960s (due to poor research, no doubt).

It's one of those classic flourless cakes which, in this case, is enriched with chocolate. There are some recipes that do add a little flour, which will help to stabilise the cake but I'm hoping that this flourless version is as light and pure in flavour as the real thing should be. It's a recipe that's easy to remember. Essentially it's equal amounts of each ingredient (if you consider the ground almonds and potato flour as a single entity) plus eggs.

This is not the only type of cake that you might find described as a Gâteau de Nancy. The citizens of Nancy seem to have a number of treats at their disposal from large meringue confections to macarons and cakes flavoured with the local plum liqueur. They are obviously wise and happy people.
Gateau de Nancy
A small slice is lovely with coffee but the cake really comes into its own as a dessert served with a little crème anglaise or crème fraîche and maybe a few choice raspberries.

125 g unsalted butter, softened, plus a little extra for the tin
125 g dark chocolate
125 g caster sugar
90 g ground almonds
35 g potato flour, sifted
4 eggs

Preheat the oven to 170ºC. Line the base and butter a 20 cm round cake tin - a springform tin is ideal if you have one.

Melt the chocolate either in a microwave or in a bowl over simmering water. Put the melted chocolate in the bowl of a mixer (make sure it's not too hot) and add the butter. Beat together thoroughly. While that's happening, separate the eggs. Beat the egg yolks into the butter and chocolate mixture one at a time. Add the sugar and beat in thoroughly. Add the ground almonds and mix in.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Stir a couple of tablespoons of the whisked egg whites into the chocolate mixture to loosen it a little and then carefully fold in the rest of the egg whites together with the potato flour.

Put the mixture into the prepared tin and gently level the top. Bake for around 25 minutes. Check that the cake is ready with a knife point in the centre. The middle of the cake should still be moist and you may see a few sticky crumbs on the knife but it shouldn't be liquid.

Remove the cake from the tin as soon as possible: leaving the cake in the tin seems to increase the chance of the top cracking and sinking too much. The cake will be fragile so be careful. Allow to cool on a rack. Many bakers seem to sprinkle this cake with icing sugar but I've noticed that bakers from Nancy don't sprinkle and so I haven't either in a belated and haphazard attempt at authenticity.
Gateau de Nancy
I feel like a bit of an outsider in the world of blog link-ups these days and so I don't usually take part. But this month Tin and Thyme is hosting the last ever We Should Cocoa link-up and so, for old times' sake, I'm submitting this cake. Over the years We Should Cocoa has been the home of many very fine, very chocolatey recipes and I'm wishing it a fond farewell.


Friday, 27 July 2018

A Delinquent Sort Of Muxu and a Glass (or Two) of Kalimoxto

You may well imagine that I'm a sophisticated and elegant man-about-town but allow me to disabuse you a little. I can be a thoroughgoing tatterdemalion if I put my mind to it. I was going through a slovenly phase (it was my butler's night off) when I put the following together. I'm probably in a lot of trouble with the people of the Basque region for mucking about with these local specialities but I swear that I do it with a great fondness and respect and only partly because I've had a glass or two of kalimoxto.

Let's start with my errant sort of muxu….Muxus

I fancied something to go with my evening espresso and so I made this inelegant, chocolatey sort of muxu. A few years ago it became the thing (at least among food bloggers) to create sophisticated, professional looking macarons. Quality patisserie is a wonderful thing but it's not what I usually enjoy baking and I'm rather glad that we've moved on a bit. The real muxu is a refined Basque speciality and mine are not the real thing: they're an idiosyncratic, delinquent tribute to the original. They're also simple to make and perfect with coffee. They do bear a distant resemblance to the sophisticated macaron although they'll almost certainly deny it. 

200 g caster sugar
250 g ground almonds (ideally not too fine if you're as haphazard as me)
100 g cocoa powder (preferably a good quality, dark and unsweetened powder)
½ tsp vanilla powder (not essential, but I like it)
4 large egg whites

Thoroughly mix together the sugar, almonds, vanilla and cocoa powder. Whisk the egg whites to the soft peak stage. Gently stir the egg whites into the dry ingredients. This will give you quite a firm mixture - don't worry, that's fine. Any serious baker would probably reach for a piping bag but I just spoon the mixture into circles of around 5 cm diameter on lined baking sheets. You should get around 24 - 28 circles of mixture, but don't worry if you get more or less - you can just shorten or lengthen the cooking time a little to make up for it. 

You now need to set the trays aside to let the crust of the muxus dry for at least 1 or 2 hours or even overnight. If you want to speed the process up, put the trays in a fan oven that's switched on without any heat.

Preheat the oven to 200⁰C. Just before putting into the oven, use a very sharp knife to cut a shallow slash across each dollop. Bake for 8 - 10 minutes. When cooked, the muxus should be crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle.

Traditionally two pieces should be sandwiched together, base to base, while still fairly hot from the oven - they will stick together quite easily. (It's how they get their name - muxu means ‘kiss’ in Basque I'm told). But keep them separate if that's what you fancy. You could also add just a little orange marmalade mixed with a touch of Cointreau to the base of the muxus before joining together. They'll store well enough in an airtight container, but they'll be more chewy than crisp after a day or so. No less tasty, though. Muxus
If you want the real muxu experience then go to la maison Pariès and, if you happen to find yourself in St Jean de Luz (or Biarritz or Paris for that matter), then why on earth wouldn't you go there? By the way (pardon my nerdiness), muxus are often called mouchous, which is a much more French looking name.
Saint Jean de Luz   
And now that we've worked up a thirst, how about a kalimoxto?

The kalimoxto is the easiest and the least stylish “cocktail” I know. In fact, you might think that I've finally taken leave of my senses. But don't knock kalimoxto till you've tried it. Obviously once you've tried it there's a pretty good chance that you'll knock it with considerable vigour. See if I care; I still like it.

I don't think I should tell you precisely which sort of wine to use, but please don't choose an expensive one. Something fruity, pleasant and reasonably cheap should do the job. Just remember to stick it in the fridge before you're thirsty. I should also be using a cheap cola I suppose but I'm a fan of some of the newer and expensive colas, especially Fever Tree Madagascan Cola and Fentimans Curiosity Cola, and so that's what I use.
Kalimotxo

Put plenty of ice cubes into a tall glass (preferably a very cheap one). Half fill the glass with chilled red wine and top up with chilled cola. Add a generous squeeze of lime. Drink.
One Too Many Muxus

Monday, 2 July 2018

Pigeon Breasts with Pomegranate Molasses and Soy Sauce

Pigeon is a very underused meat (at least it is in the UK) but it's far too nice to ignore. I remember that it became quite a trendy thing to eat in the 1980s, often in warm salads or served with soy sauce and sesame. Then it seemed to fade away again. Admittedly pigeon does have disadvantages - there's not a huge amount of meat on a pigeon and what there is can be tough. But it really doesn't have to be like that.

This sauce is based loosely on a Ming Tsai recipe from the 1990s (if memory serves) and the whole dish is simple to put together. Do make sure that you allow enough time for the marinade to do its work, though. I served the pigeon with simply steamed potatoes and roasted beetroot this time, but rice or mash (sweet potato mash, maybe) would be fine and dandy too. You could also ease off on the amount of sauce and make the pigeon the star of a warm salad with interesting leaves, new potatoes and whatever else you fancy. (That's a very 1980s option but it's one that's worth reviving).

I find that it's easier to get hold of pigeon breasts than whole pigeons these days, but if you're faced with whole pigeons, then remove the breasts and make a stock with the rest of the birds. I know that might sound like a bit of a faff but pigeon stock is lovely stuff and really useful for casseroles and sauces.

Sorry about the quality of the picture - it's what happens when you use a camera that's punching above its weight in the dark.

Pigeon Breasts with Pomegranate Molasses

This will serve 2 people.

For the marinade:
          3 tbsp pomegranate molasses
          2 tbsp light soy sauce
          1 tbsp honey
          1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
          1 clove of garlic, crushed or grated
          about 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger

4 pigeon breasts, skin removed

Mix together all the marinade ingredients, pour over the pigeon breasts and place in the fridge for around 2 hours.

Drain the breasts, reserving the marinade, and fry in a little oil over a medium heat for about 4 minutes, turning once. The pigeon should be cooked but still quite rare. It's really easy to overcook the pigeon and end up with tough meat, so keep an eye on the time.

Remove the breasts from the pan and set aside but keep them warm. Pour the marinade into the pan, turn up the heat and reduce the amount of liquid a little (or as much as you fancy). Immediately before serving return the pigeon breasts briefly to the pan and coat in the sauce.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

RB’s Lemon Cake

Many people have bucket lists consisting of adventurous or highly dangerous activities like skydiving or eating at a restaurant on its opening day. But I have a bucket list of cakes. I'm much happier that way. Here's one I've just ticked off on that list.

Many of the recipes that I publish on this blog are not particularly well known or are hard to find elsewhere. (My theory being that at least I'll know where to find them when I want them next time). This cake is an exception. It's really well known (at least, it is in the UK). You might have seen it on TV, on a recipe site, in blogs, in a book, in a magazine or you may have been lucky enough to try it yourself. I've made a lot of lemon cakes over the years but, despite my best intentions, I hadn't made this one until now.
RB's Lemon Cake
Many years ago Raymond Blanc began making and serving this cake to guests at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire and it's still made and served there today. It's actually a pretty easy cake to put together. The only tricky bit is getting the glaze just right. That's a bit of a faff, but it does give the cake a lovely finish and I'm convinced it's worth the effort.

You can find the recipe here or here (and probably quite a few other places too).
RB's Lemon Cake
I've heard this cake described as the ultimate lemon cake by some but also as a madeira style of cake with extra lemon and not really that special by others. So, is it the best lemon cake you can make? Well, sat here paying bills on a cloudy afternoon in Surrey it's unquestionably an extremely pleasant cake to lift the gloom and, yes, it's a little like a light madeira cake in texture.

On the other hand, if you happen to be whiling away a sunny afternoon on the lawns outside the Manoir after playing an incompetent and farcical game of croquet, would this be the best lemon cake you could imagine? Oh yes, very probably.
Le Manoir