Monday, 21 April 2014

Quatre Quarts

I was stuck in a post office queue recently and I started to daydream about Brittany. (The place, not a person). By the time I got to the counter, I felt I really had to come home and make a quatre quarts. Although versions of this cake can be found in pretty much any French supermarket, Brittany is its spiritual home. The cake is essentially a pound cake, but it’s all about good butter and in Brittany that means very good, salted butter. Incidentally, the name simply refers to the four quarters, the four ingredients of identical weight that make up the cake - eggs, flour, sugar and butter.

I add a little vanilla to the cake, which I don’t think is strictly authentic but I like it. Depending on whom you ask, baking powder may not be acceptable either, but I don’t care, I use it anyway. If you fancy a variation, chocolate and apple versions are very popular in Brittany too.
Quatre Quarts
This will make enough mixture for a 2 lb (900 g) loaf tin and that’s the more common shape for the cake but you could use a round tin instead (21 cm diameter should be about right). It will also work well in small, individual loaf tins.

This cake reminds me of Carnac. Surely, I can’t be so shallow that I gaze upon one of Europe’s most majestic prehistoric landscapes and think of cake, can I? Well, nobody’s perfect.
Carnac
3 eggs, weighed in their shells (If they're anything like the eggs from the local farm here that will amount to close to 200 g)
The same weight in
     plain flour
     caster sugar
     lightly salted butter (plus a little bit extra for rubbing on the tin)
1½ tsp of baking powder
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract (optional)

Mix the baking powder into the flour. Butter your chosen tin or tins thoroughly and line the base with baking paper just to be sure. Preheat the oven to 160°C.

Soften the butter over a very low heat or in a microwave (it should be very soft but not quite melted). Set the butter aside to cool. Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together thoroughly until the mixture is very pale. Whisk in the vanilla paste (or extract) if you’re using it. Sieve in a third of the flour and baking powder mix and add a third of the softened, cooled butter. Mix these in well, but try not to beat the mixture too much. Repeat this process twice with the remaining thirds of flour and butter.

Whisk the egg whites to the firm peak stage. Fold the egg whites into the mixture gently but thoroughly. Spoon the mixture into the tin and level the top. Bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until a knife or cake tester comes out clean. If the top begins to darken too much for your taste, then cover the cake loosely with foil for the last 10 minutes or so of baking. (I've noticed that a lot of bakers in Brittany actually like quite a dark top on this type of cake and bake at a higher temperature to produce it).

Allow to cool a little in the tin before turning out to cool completely on a rack.
Quatre Quarts

Monday, 31 March 2014

Veg Patch Confessions Part 43b - New Zealand Spinach

There's no recipe today; instead it’s this year’s first dubious tale from the neglected veg patch.

Spinach is a very useful vegetable to have growing in your garden in my opinion. Even if you don’t have much space to grow a lot of plants, a couple of handfuls of the leaves can be really useful to add to curries, pasta, fish or whatever you fancy. The problem is that if you’re away from home or if you’re just too busy to get out to your plants, then things start to go wrong. Like most vegetables, spinach doesn't take kindly to near complete neglect, especially a lack of watering.

On the other hand, there is a useful little plant that has survived a serious amount of neglect in my veg patch: New Zealand Spinach (tetragonia tetragonioides). It might not be as prolific or as large as conventional spinach, but any vegetable that can survive both drought and my incompetent gardening has got to be a good thing.
New Zealand Spinach
You may know this plant by a different name. For instance, in Australia and New Zealand I'm told that it’s known as Warrigal greens. In France it’s called tétragone and elsewhere it’s sometimes called sea spinach for reasons that I don’t really understand. Whatever you call it, though, it really does taste and behave like spinach once cooked.

If you're not familiar with this plant and you might be tempted to try growing it, here are a few things I've discovered about New Zealand spinach that the seed packet might not tell you.
  • Snails and slugs don’t seem to like it much and will only nibble it if desperate.

  • As far as I know, there are no named varieties and so there’s no reason to go shopping around for a particular variety of seed – they should all be the same.

  • It’s best if you pick the leaves little and often. Once blanched they do freeze well in the same way as normal spinach. If you don’t pick regularly, the plants can become quite large and ungainly. This might not be a major problem unless they outgrow their space and swamp nearby smaller plants.

  • Don’t plant it directly in the ground if the soil is still cold – it will sulk and fail to germinate. On the other hand, it germinates really well in pots on a windowsill, although it’s best to soak the seeds in water overnight before planting.

  • In their raw form the leaves do contain quite a high concentration of oxalic acid (as does sorrel) and this would be unhealthy in large doses. Although eating raw leaves is not recommended, the acid is largely removed by cooking or blanching. Spinach, chard, kale and rhubarb (amongst other foods) also contain oxalic acid, so I don’t think that there’s any reason to worry about this plant in particular.

  • The flowers are small and yellow and it’s almost impossible to stop the plants flowering, especially if you don’t pick the leaves regularly. It doesn’t really matter if they do flower, though, and they will self-seed, so you may never need to buy another packet of seeds.

  • The plants will usually be killed instantly by the first frost.
March in the Garden
While I've got my battered gardening hat on, I feel the urge to mention chervil again. It’s not that easy to find on sale in supermarkets but it’s a useful, decorative and easily grown herb. Some of last summer’s plants set seed in my garden and, as a result, some young plants survived the mild winter and are producing an excellent spring crop.
Chervil
Now I really must get around to cooking something.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cardamom and Lemon Apple Jelly

I've wittered on about making savoury apple jellies before, but I don't care, I'm going to do it again. They've become one of my essential store cupboard items and, following the superb crop of apples in England last year, I was given plenty of cooking apples with which to experiment over the autumn and winter. This jelly won the award for best newcomer.

It's more fragrant and a little less punchy than some of the others that I make but it’s certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to flavour. The cardamom is the main taste but it does need the lemon to provide a lift. It’s excellent served with cured or smoked salmon or used as a glaze when roasting salmon fillets. It also works very well with lamb and cold meats and adds an extra depth to vegetable dishes. Mixed with white wine, lemon juice and olive oil it will create a fine marinade or glaze for chicken or pork and it's useful for adding extra flavour to quick, weekday curries. You can even use it to flavour sweet dishes but, if you want a truly sweet jelly, then swap the vinegar in the recipe for more water.

Although this may sound like quite a few apples, it will only produce roughly three small jars. It might seem like a lot of effort for not much reward but a little does go a long way and will provide a big flavour boost whenever you fancy it.
Cardamom and Lemon Apple Jelly
For the first stage:
     1 kg cooking apples (Bramleys are the obvious choice, but other varieties will be fine too)
     500 ml white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
     500 ml water
     2 unwaxed lemons
     40 (or so) lightly crushed cardamom pods

For the second stage:
     450 g granulated sugar for every 550 ml of liquid that dripped through the jelly bag
     Seeds of around 30 cardamom pods, lightly crushed

It’s probably easiest to make the jelly over two days so that it can left overnight, but, failing that, allow at least 3 – 5 hours between stages one and two.

For stage 1, wash the apples and make sure that there are no damaged bits on them. Chop the apples roughly without peeling or removing the pips. Place the apple pieces in a preserving pan together with the vinegar and water. Cut the lemons in half and add them to the pan. Stir in the cardamom and place the pan on the heat. Bring to the boil, squeezing the lemon halves with the back of a wooden spoon to make sure that juice escapes. Put a lid on the pan and simmer the mixture until the apples have collapsed and become mushy. This probably won’t take more than 15 minutes, although it will vary a little depending on the variety of apple you’re using.

Put the contents of the pan into a jelly bag (or you could use fine muslin) and leave it to drip through into a clean container.

When you awake refreshed the next morning or when you just can’t wait any longer, measure the liquid that’s dripped through the bag, pour it back into the cleaned preserving pan and add the appropriate amount of sugar for the second stage. (Don’t use sugar with added pectin – there’ll be plenty of pectin in the mixture from the apples and lemons already).

Put the pan on a medium heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat, bring to the boil and skim any unpleasant looking foam or scum from the top. Boil until the jelly reaches setting point. These days I've learnt to trust a jam thermometer and the way the jelly looks to tell me when that point has been reached. There’s always the old wrinkle test as an alternative, though: chill a saucer in the freezer, put a small dollop of the jelly on the saucer, wait a moment or two and if the jelly wrinkles when you push it with your finger, then it’s ready.

As the jelly starts to cool, it will begin to thicken. At this point, stir in the cardamom seeds, which should remain suspended in the jelly. If they sink to the bottom, let the jelly cool a little more and stir again. Pour the jelly into sterilised jars and seal. I tend to get through the jars of jelly quite quickly but they should keep for about a year unopened if stored in a cool, dark cupboard. Once opened, store in the fridge, where they should last for at least six weeks.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Wet Nelly Goes South

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that today is Global Scouse Day. In celebration, here's an alternative dish from Liverpool - sort of. A while ago I read this post about the Wet Nelly of Liverpool on the very fine blog Lola and Finn’s Mum. Shamefully, despite a shedload of visits to Liverpool, I'd never heard of Wet Nelly. While I was back there last year and cruising along Speke Boulevard at the regulation 40 mph with the wind from Widnes blowing through what remains of my hair, I suddenly remembered Wet Nelly and thought I must have a go at making one.

It turns out that Wet Nelly is essentially bread pudding from Liverpool. It might have pastry on the top and bottom and, then again, it might not. I don’t think that there’s any doubt that it’s one of those puddings designed to use up whatever you have left in the cupboard when there’s not much money to go around. I can remember eating bread puddings made from various leftovers as a kid (in London not Liverpool) but I have to admit that they were moderately terrible. So I was keen to see what would happen if I made one now.

I'm a fully qualified southern softie and I just don’t have the same sort of leftovers these days that we had when I was young. Looking round the kitchen, I had leftover brioche, some speculoos biscuits (or Biscoff, as they seem to be called in the UK these days) and butter rather than suet. (When did I become so ridiculously middle class? I think I'm becoming unduly influenced by Damien Trench.) Anyway, this is my attempt at a Southern Wet Nelly or slightly eccentric (and probably woollyback) bread pudding. As it turns out, there’s nothing at all wrong with that idea and the result is so much better than anything I ate as a kid. In fact, it’s decidedly moreish.

One more thing, in Liverpool I was told that Wet Nelly should always be cut into squares before serving. No other shape would be right. I advise against asking why that should be, you might well get the answer, ‘Act soft and I’ll buy you a coalyard’.

Southern Wet Nelly
You don’t have to use rum to soak the sultanas - orange juice, black tea or even water will do. On the other hand, if this dish is a tribute to Nelson as historians suggest, then I'm sure that he would have chosen rum and so would I. If you use stale bread to make this dish, it will probably need some additional soaking time. Brioche is normally softer and needs only 10 minutes or so.

300 g brioche, torn into chunks (it can be less than perfectly fresh)
200 ml milk
150 g sultanas
3 tbsp dark rum
4 speculoos (biscoff) biscuits (or whatever spicy or gingery biscuits you have)
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp vanilla paste or extract
50 g butter, softened plus a bit extra for the tin
70 g light brown soft sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
2 tbsp marmalade
2 tsp demerara sugar, to sprinkle on top

Put the brioche chunks into a large bowl and pour over the milk. Squidge the brioche and milk together a little and set aside. Place the sultanas in a bowl and pour over the rum. Set aside while you get the rest of the ingredients together.

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Butter an oven tray or cake tin – I used an 18 cm square tray with a depth of 5 cm. Break the speculoos (or other biscuits) into random chunks. (I put mine into a plastic bag and bashed them on the worktop a few times.) Add the sultanas and any residual rum to the soggy brioche, then add all the other ingredients, except the demerara sugar. Stir the whole lot together thoroughly. Pour into the prepared tin and sprinkle over the demerara sugar.

Bake in the preheated oven for about 40 – 45 minutes until the top is browned but not burnt and the pudding feels springy but reasonably firm. You can either cut the pudding into squares and serve immediately with some custard or allow it to cool and reheat later (a microwave will do the job fine, although Mr Trench might disagree). Or, if you're like me, just eat it cold whenever the urge takes you.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Three-Day Oxtail with Gin and Beer

This dish really doesn't need a lot of work, but it does need a fair bit of time. If you can’t wait, you can shorten the process, but I think this dish is at it’s very best when made over a three-day period. On the first day you prepare the marinade and leave it overnight to do its stuff. On the second day you cook the dish in a relaxed manner and then chill it overnight. On the third day you reheat and enjoy it.

This is an Anglicised version of a ch’ti recipe from just across the channel. The original recipe would have used genièvre and a local beer (a bière ambrée) but gin and a pale ale will do nicely instead, if they’re easier to lay your hands on. You can use other beers, but avoid any that are very bitter.

This dish would normally be served simply with a little pasta or boiled potatoes, I think, but mashed potatoes, roasted celeriac or rice would be just fine too. This is a very warming and comforting dish for a winter’s day. Eat this and imagine yourself in a little estaminet somewhere near the coast of the Pas-de-Calais with good company and steamed-up windows. Hopefully, I'll be the badly dressed bloke in the corner studying a ‘Learn To Speak Ch’ti Without Tears’ book.

This will serve 2 but it will feed one or two more if accompanied by enough pasta, rice or veg. À chés fêtes !
Oxtail with Gin and Beer
600 g – 750 g oxtail, in thick slices

For the marinade:
     2 carrots, chopped into small chunks
     1 onion, chopped
     3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
     8 juniper berries
     2 sprigs rosemary
     1½ tbsp balsamic vinegar (not authentic, but it works)
     2 tbsp tomato purée
     100 ml gin (or genièvre, if you happen to have some)
     150 ml beer
     A little salt and a generous sprinkle of pepper

80 g smoked lardons
140 g mushrooms, sliced
1 tsp dark brown sugar
200 ml beef stock
A little lemon juice
1 tbsp chopped chervil or parsley

Day one: Simply mix all the marinade ingredients together in a non-reactive bowl and add the oxtail. Cover and place in the fridge overnight.

Day two: Preheat the oven to 150 °C, remove the oxtail from the marinade and pat it dry. Add the lardons to a large, dry frying pan and fry them over a medium heat until the fat begins to run. Add the oxtail to the pan and brown it lightly on all sides. Strain the marinade to separate the vegetables from the liquid (but keep both). Discard the rosemary. Add the strained vegetables to the pan together with the mushrooms. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes more. Sprinkle the sugar over the pan and pour in the reserved marinade liquid. Bring the liquid to simmering point and add the beef stock. Bring back to a simmer. Transfer the dish to a ovenproof casserole dish and place in the oven for 2 – 3 hours until the meat is very tender.

Allow the casserole to cool, at least until you can handle it. Remove the meat from the bones and break up into fairly small pieces. Discard the bones and any remaining chunks of fat. Return the meat to the casserole and put it in the fridge.

Day three: Skim off most of the fat and reheat the casserole in a low oven. When it’s nice and hot adjust the seasoning and add a squeeze or two of lemon. Sprinkle with a little chopped chervil or parsley if you fancy and serve with your chosen accompaniment.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Pistachio Lemon and Rapeseed Oil Financiers

Recently, and not for the first time in my life, I bought a cake mould without really thinking what I might use it for. My feeble excuse is that it was in a sale. Although it’s deeper than a classic financier mould, it’s the same basic shape and it made me think of a recipe that I’d seen a year or two ago on the Elle à Table site for financiers made with apricots and olive oil. (The original recipe can be found here)

This recipe is based on that Elle original but, as any TV chef will tell you, olive oil is just so last decade and I used mainly cold pressed rapeseed oil instead. In fact, I used a combination of rapeseed and lemon-infused olive oil but either will work in this recipe. I know that not everyone agrees but I really like the flavour of rapeseed oil in baking. I think it works particularly well with pistachios and so I've used them rather than the more usual almonds.

The pistachios can be ground in a processor but don’t overdo it or the result will be too greasy. This amount gave me nine larger cakes, but if you make smaller, classic financiers then you should get at least twice that number. These light, little cakes will keep pretty well in an airtight container for a day or two and they also freeze well, but I must admit that they’re at their absolute best when eaten as soon as they’re cool.
Pistachio Lemon and Rapeseed Oil Financiers
50 g ground pistachios
50 g plain flour
150 g icing sugar
Zest of 1 lemon, very finely grated
125 g egg white (this worked out to be about 3½ of the large eggs that I had)
80 ml cold pressed rapeseed oil
40 ml lemon-infused olive oil

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Lightly butter a large financier or small cake mould.

Sieve the icing sugar, flour and pistachios and combine in a large bowl, ideally the bowl of a stand mixer if you have one. Stir in the lemon zest. Pour the egg whites into the bowl slowly while whisking vigorously. Once the egg white is combined, add the oil in the same way until the mixture comes together. (It may seem quite a thin mixture, but that’s the way it should be).

Fill the moulds at least ¾ full. Bake for around 20 minutes until the tops of the cakes are risen and golden and a knife or tester comes out clean. (Small financiers will take around 10 – 12 minutes).

Allow the cakes to cool in the mould for a few minutes before turning out and cooling completely on a rack.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Hummus Irritation And This Year’s Kitchen Music

If you saw the Simon Hopkinson Cooks TV series earlier this year, then you may remember that as part of one of his menus he made hummus. Nothing too unusual about that, of course, except that he insisted that the skins of the chickpeas should be diligently removed. That way, according to Mr Hopkinson, it would be the smoothest possible hummus. I've never done that and, frankly, I thought that life’s a bit too short to go to that amount of effort.

Since then, every time I've eaten or even set eyes on hummus, I've remembered the thing about the skins. Recently I finally gave in and tried it. Removing all the skins is very irritating and I’d love to say that it made no difference, but, dammit, he was right and I apologise for ever doubting the great man. The hummus really is better. Mr Hopkinson’s recipe can be found here.

Hummus
Now, useful as that information may be, I'm afraid it’s just an excuse because it’s time for my favourite kitchen music of the year again. I know it’s self-indulgent and it’s not cooking, but it’s only once a year, so please forgive me. It’s actually been a fine year – new music from Prefab Sprout, Vampire Weekend and Laura Marling, another excellent album - ‘Alaska’ - from those fine tunesmiths The Silver Seas, the 30th anniversary of Capercaillie and Jane Horrocks singing Joy Division among many other lovely and unexpected things. But here are a few delights that might be a little less well known.

I've been haunted by this song and video all year. Less than 2 minutes of pure, if slightly sombre, pleasure from the British band Feldspar.


Marble Sounds are from Belgium and their admirably beautiful album ‘Dear Me, Look Up’ was released in March.


The Trouble With Templeton are from Brisbane, although they did a mini tour of England this year. Their album ‘Rookie’ was released in August.


Finally, someone (actually someone from France) said to me this year ‘It's all very well having French recipes on your blog, but you wouldn't have French music’. This is not true and to prove it this is Baden Baden with a track from their album ‘Coline’.


The management thanks you for your patience and assures you that normal recipe service will be resumed shortly.