Friday, 22 November 2019

Fromage Frais Gâteau

I've called this a gâteau because that's what the French original was called but this is definitely a dessert (or maybe a sweet snack) and not a cake to be nibbled with tea. The French seem to have a great love for flan-like desserts of various kinds such as the classic flan pâtissier,  le millas made with maize flour from the Charente or maybe the pastizzu made with semolina from Corsica. This dish may follow that tradition but it's a modern and health-conscious invention. I've come across it in many forms in the last 20 or 30 years and I've always been a bit doubtful about some of the simpler and lighter forms of the recipe.

Well, having played around with the recipe for a bit, I now realise that I was wrong. A simple and low fat version suits my less complicated tastes these days. If you want a dessert that's lighter and healthier than most cheesecakes but still creamier and smoother than a cake, then this might be right for you as well.
Fromage Frais Gâteau

In France this would be made with fromage blanc, but in the UK we have fromage frais. The difference between French fromage blanc and British fromage frais is confusing, a bit dull and not really all that important for this kind of recipe. The type of fromage frais you choose does make a difference, though. Personally I think the low fat content of this recipe is a major part of its appeal and so I use a 0% fat fromage frais. A fromage frais with higher fat content will taste a little richer and should prevent the gâteau collapsing quite as much. It's really a question of taste.

I use vanilla in this gâteau but it will work very well with other flavours too. Lemon is a good alternative (use lemon zest and a little juice) but I've also come across examples with orange flower water and the odd touch of Cointreau or rum. I combine plain flour with a little potato flour in this recipe which I think gives a slightly lighter result but it's not critical and you could use all plain flour.
Fromage Frais Gâteau

4 large eggs, separated
90 g golden caster sugar (plus 2 tsp for the tin)
500 g fromage frais (0% fat or higher fat content if you prefer - see above)
1½ tsp vanilla powder (or vanilla paste or extract)
70 g plain flour 
30 g potato flour (or use an extra 30 g of plain flour) 

Prepare a 23 cm tin by rubbing it thoroughly with butter and sprinkling evenly with the 2 teaspoons of sugar. (It's not vital, but I find a springform tin easiest). Preheat the oven to 180⁰C.

Whisk the sugar and egg yolks together thoroughly until pale and increased in volume. Briefly whisk in the fromage frais and vanilla powder (or paste or extract).

Whisk the egg whites to the stiff peak stage. Fold the egg whites into the fromage frais and egg yolk mix. I find it's best to add the egg white in two stages but, however you do it, don't be too vigorous and knock out all the air. If in doubt remember that it's better to have a less thorough combination than a flattened one. Pour into the prepared tin and even the mixture out. Place in the preheated oven.

The time this gâteau takes to bake will vary according to the thickness of the chosen fromage frais but around 30 minutes is about right. Check after around 25 minutes but don't be surprised if it takes closer to 40 minutes. When baked, the top should be browned, the gâteau should feel springy to the touch and if you test with a knife point or a cake tester, it should be largely clean (a little stickiness is not a bad thing).

Allow the gâteau to cool completely in the tin before turning out (it will sink as it cools, but that's OK). You could smarten up the top of the gâteau by sprinkling with icing sugar but I quite like the crusty look and so I don't bother. Keep in the fridge until ready to serve.

Serve in slices with berries or a fruit coulis or purée. I like it served cold from the fridge but most people seem to prefer it served at room temperature so remember to to remove it from the fridge in advance. Any leftover slices will freeze well. 


Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Chicken Liver Sauce From Back When Tratts Were Fab

I've just been listening to someone on the radio wittering on about how terrible British restaurants were back in the 1960s and 70s. This version of history seems to be accepted as the official narrative today. I admit that many of the restaurants back then were pretty bad. In fact some of them were laughably awful such as the trendy restaurant that served only tinned food. But there were very good places to eat if you looked hard enough in the right places. I was lucky because the right places were often in London and that's where I happened to be living. If you headed for one of the simple trattorias scattered around town then you could get decent, straightforward Italian food at a reasonable price as well as encountering waiters with comically large pepper grinders.

There wasn't a huge choice of food in those bygone tratts but some options were very similar to what's on offer in restaurants today. For instance, I swear I had crushed avocado on toast in a little place in Soho in around 1979. On the other hand, there were some dishes that you rarely find on menus now. This recipe is one of those missing dishes and I was reminded of it when I came across a few very old, dogeared recipes that I'd collected back who knows when. I'm quite sure that this particular recipe dates back to the 1960s and I seem to remember eating very similar dishes whilst wearing flares in the 70s.

The original recipe was a little vague and so I might have tweaked it a little for my current tastes but when I ate it I felt as if I was back listening to Jonathan Richman singing about a Roadrunner or maybe the first Talking Heads album. More importantly, though, I started to wonder why we stopped cooking and eating this kind of dish. I know it's humble, simple and cheap but it tastes really good to me.

Chicken Liver Sauce
Personally I think this amount should serve 4 but it's the sort of sauce that I've seen served in big 1960 style portions in large bowls, in which case you might consider it a generous amount to serve 2. I like this paired with gnocchi but, in the spirit of the 1960s and 70s, you could use whatever pasta you happen to have in the cupboard. I know I just said that this was a cheap dish but using a good quality Marsala will make a real difference to the flavour. A Marsala revival must be long overdue.

A small handful dried porcini
400 g chicken livers
2 tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
A dash or two red wine vinegar
100 ml Marsala
1 tbsp tomato purée
300 ml chicken stock
The leaves from a sprig of thyme
A little chopped parsley

Soak the porcini in hot water for 20 minutes (or whatever the pack recommends). 

Cut out any sinews or other unpleasant looking bits from the chicken livers and chop them into smallish but not tiny pieces. Pat the livers with kitchen paper to dry them a little then coat them in the seasoned flour. Drain the porcini and reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the porcini quite finely.

Melt a small knob of butter in some olive oil and fry the livers fairly gently for about five minutes. Stir in the chopped porcini. Add the Marsala and red wine vinegar to the pan and cook, stirring now and then, for 5 minutes until the liquid has reduced to something close to a coating consistency.

Stir in the tomato purée then pour in the chicken stock and the reserved porcini soaking water. Sprinkle the thyme leaves around the pan, bring to simmering point, partially cover and let the mixture simmer for around 30 minutes, stirring every now and then. Keep an eye on the sauce to make sure it doesn’t dry out and add a little water or stock if need be. By the end of the simmering time the sauce should be suitably thickened and the chicken livers should be meltingly tender. Uncover and cook for a little longer if the sauce seems too thin.

To serve, cook your chosen pasta or gnocchi, check that the seasoning of the sauce is just right, combine the sauce and pasta and sprinkle with a little chopped parsley. 

Monday, 23 September 2019

Hake with Cider and Apples

This dish might sound a little eccentric - fish, cider and apples aren't usually best friends - but somehow it works. The sauce adds a savoury depth of flavour and the apples provide a contrasting acidity. Although it's more typical of Normandy, the last time I came across this kind of combination was on the Île d'Oléron. And that's entirely appropriate because I find the Île d'Oléron pleasingly eccentric too.
L'île d'Oléron
To be honest, this dish isn't usually made with hake - cod or pollock would be more likely - but I'm very fond of hake so that's what I'm using. You could use pretty much any white fish you fancy. This is a little lighter than some similar northern French recipes but it's definitely not free from calories. Well, we are in Normandy after all. Or we might be on the Île d'Oléron for all I know.
Hake with Cider and Apples

This will serve 2.

1 large shallot, finely chopped
300 ml cider (a light, dry cider would be best)
2 apples (ideally a firm variety with a little acidity)
2 hake fillets
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1½ tbsp crème fraîche
Butter for frying

Fry the shallot gently in a little butter until softened. Pour in the cider, increase the heat and allow it to reduce by roughly two thirds. Pour through a fine sieve into a suitable container and discard the shallot. Set aside.

Peel, core and cut the apples into thick slices. Season the slices and fry them in a little butter until browned. Keep warm.

Fry the hake in a little butter. It's difficult to be precise about how long it will take to cook the hake - it will depend upon thickness - but 6 or 7 minutes will usually be enough. While the hake is frying reheat the cider sauce and gently whisk in the crème fraîche and mustard. Taste and correct the seasoning.

It's just an assembly job to serve. Arrange the apple slices on warmed plates, add the hake and pour on some of the sauce. Simply steamed or boiled potatoes and some green veg would complete the dish nicely.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Macarons d'Amiens

It's more than six years since I bothered you with my general-purpose “traditional” French macaron recipe and at the time I promised to irritate you still further with my recreation of the macaron from the Picardy town of Amiens. Well, I may be slow but sometimes I do get there in the end.

I have a fascination for the traditional food of Picardy not only because it's just across the channel but also because it's so often neglected, even by the French. This particular example of the macaron is said to date back to the sixteenth century, although I'm not pretending that my version is truly authentic. In fact, I've been told that if you make the Amiens macaron in less than three days, then you're not really trying. This type of macaron is sometimes baked in small cake tins, which will give you a more regular shape but I'm pretty confident that the more traditional bakers of Amiens don't do it that way. This version tends to be chunkier than most other types of macaron, giving you more of a contrast between the soft insides and the crisper outside. They're excellent with strong coffee and they keep pretty well in an airtight container.
Macarons d'Amiens
For best results, begin this recipe the day before you want to bake it – it's quick to put together before you go to bed. In fact, the whole recipe requires very little effort, just a little bit of planning.

I've found that different types of almond extract tend to vary quite a bit in strength, so adapt the amount given here to suit your personal taste.

125 g ground almonds
50 g light brown soft sugar
50 g caster sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp apricot jam
½ tsp vanilla paste or extract
¼ tsp almond extract (see the note above)
1 medium egg white

Mix the ground almonds and both of the sugars together in a bowl. In a jug, stir together the honey, jam, vanilla paste or extract, almond extract and the egg white until thoroughly combined. Add around a third of the liquid to the ground almond and sugar mixture and stir in thoroughly. Repeat until all the liquid has been combined and the mixture has turned into a paste. Cover tightly with cling film and chill in the fridge overnight (or, at least, for several hours).

The next day, preheat the oven to 170°C. Spread a layer of cling film on the work surface and spread the mixture out in a line on the film. Roll up the cling film and twist the ends to form the macaron mixture into a sausage. You need a sausage of between 3 and 4 cm thick. (You don't have to use cling film to roll the mixture, but I think it makes the job a lot easier). Carefully unwrap and cut the mixture into slices of around 1.5 or 2 cm long. You should get around 10 or 11 macarons.

Place the macarons on a lined baking tray, reshaping them a little if they get knocked out of shape in the process. Bake in the oven for around 15 – 20 minutes. It can be a little tricky to judge when the macarons are ready, but they should have an even light brown colour. (Be careful, they can start to burn quickly if left too long.) Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container once cold.
Macarons d'Amiens Henge

Monday, 29 July 2019

Samfaina or Something Like It

Please don't imagine that this dish is authentic. Let's just say that it's inspired by the Catalan dish ‘samfaina’, which is itself a cousin of ratatouille and caponata. Over the years I've heard many chefs insisting that the flavours and textures of the vegetables in ratatouille should always be kept distinct from one another but for this slow-cooked style of samfaina please forget about that. This dish is all about blending the flavours and textures into something closer to a jammy dip. That may sound odd but, believe me, it works.

I have it on good authority that courgettes aren't normally used in the classic Catalonian samfaina but I like what they bring to the dish. (I warned you that this wasn't authentic.) The addition of smoked paprika to the dish at the end isn't really authentic either but I came across a restaurant doing something similar and so I've copied the idea. It makes a subtle but very real difference to the flavour. (A little warning from someone who should know better - I tried a cheap supermarket brand of smoked paprika recently and it tasted very nasty indeed compared to the imported Spanish product. It seems that you get what you pay for).

This version of  samfaina makes a fine sauce alongside fish, chicken or pork and, although it's commonly served hot (or at least warm), it also makes a very pleasing condiment or dip at room temperature. It's not half bad as a sauce for pasta or rice too. It can be prepared well in advance and freezes very well. In short, it's just ridiculously useful.
Samfaina
Once the vegetables have been chopped, there's not a lot of work involved in this dish but it does take a while to cook and it's best made when you're not due somewhere else for a while. Don't worry about being too precise with the veg chopping; it's a rustic dish. This will serve at least 4 or 5 people but more if you use it as a dip or a smaller side dish.

2 onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 medium or 1 large aubergine, cut into roughly 2 cm chunks
2 courgettes, cut into roughly 2 cm chunks
2 red peppers, stem and seeds removed and flesh cut into roughly 1 - 2 cm chunks
1 green pepper, stem and seeds removed and flesh cut into roughly 1 - 2 cm chunks
1 glass dry white wine
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato purée
½ tsp sweet smoked paprika

I wouldn't normally bother to salt aubergines before cooking them but if they're prone to being bitter and watery in your neighbourhood then it might be a good idea. So, if you think you've got watery aubergines, sprinkle salt on the aubergine chunks in a colander and leave them to drain for 30 - 60 minutes. Wash the salt off and dry the aubergine chunks before using.

Using a pan that will be big enough to hold all the vegetables eventually, fry the onion very slowly in a few tablespoons of olive oil until they're very soft and taking on a little colour. That should take around 30 or 40 minutes if you're being thorough.

While that's happening, coat the chunks of aubergine with another tablespoon or two of olive oil and roast in the oven at 180⁰C for about 20 minutes until softened and lightly coloured. (It's more usual to fry the aubergines but I prefer to roast them initially because they soak up far less oil). Do the same with the courgette chunks but roast for a slightly shorter time: 10 - 15 minutes should be enough.

Once the onion is truly soft, add the garlic and peppers and continue frying gently for 5 minutes. Add the roasted aubergine and courgette chunks to the pan, stir in the white wine followed by the tin of tomatoes and the tomato purée. Season generously, stir well and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan and allow the mixture to simmer gently for an hour. Stir the pan every now and then and make sure the contents don't dry out (add a little water if it seems to need it).

After an hour or so the vegetables should all be very tender and almost falling apart. Uncover the pan, increase the heat and stir until the contents of the pan are thick and almost jammy. Take the pan off the heat and check the seasoning - the dish will be all the better for quite a lot of seasoning. Finally, stir in the sweet smoked paprika.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Lamb Bhuna (The South London 1980s Version)

I'm told that ‘bhuna’ means ‘brown’ and refers to the way that this curry is cooked until the colour darkens. In yet another of my shameful fits of nostalgia I'm attempting to recreate a curry that used to turn up on the menus of some of the nicest South London Indian restaurants back in the 1980s when I just happened to be living there. I've come across many bhunas that look and taste nothing like this in the intervening years. To be honest, this is close to the original but not entirely faithful. I think I've toned down my spice craving a bit since the 1980s and I definitely use less oil these days.

I imagine that you can still find something like this dish in restaurants somewhere in the country, but it's probably not fancy enough for many London establishments these days. I've checked Google and the place where I first ate this bhuna is now an estate agents. That sums up the recent history of South London rather well I think. 
Lamb Bhuna
The number of spices here might seem like a bit of a faff but the cooking process itself is very straightforward as long as you keep a close eye on it towards the end. This will serve 2 people quite generously as a main course or a few more as part of a shared set of dishes, which is just how we liked it back in the 1980s.

I thought I'd add a few short notes on some of the ingredients that I use in this curry, just in case they're useful to someone or other.

The Oil - I've been told by people who understand these things far better than I that olive oil is alien to this kind of cooking and should never be used. Then I came across a Nepalese chef who always uses olive oil and seemed to find the 'alien' idea hilarious. As a result, I tend to use a light olive oil in this kind of dish these days. 

The Chillies - Dried Kashmiri chillies are fragrant, delicious and relatively mild but you can substitute any dried chilli or chilli powder you like. Don't use too much, though, because this curry should be aromatic rather than really hot.
Kashmiri Chillies
Fenugreek seeds add a distinctive and satisfying flavour to this dish but it seems that some people with peanut allergies can also have problems with fenugreek, so please be cautious if you or your fellow eaters react that way.

Anardana powder is made from dried pomegranate seeds and it adds a sweet and sour touch to dishes. It seems to divide opinion: some people don't really see the point of it while others find it almost addictive. 

450 g lamb neck fillet, cut into chunks of about 2 cm
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped
2 cm ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 dried Kashmiri chilli, crushed or chopped
400 g tin of peeled tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée

The spices:
    4 cardamom pods, seeds only
    1 tsp cumin seeds
    1 tsp coriander seeds
    ½ tsp fenugreek seeds
    ½ tsp black peppercorns
    ½ tsp fennel seeds

To serve (you can treat these as optional, but they are good):
    A sprinkling of anardana powder
    A squeeze of lemon juice
    A sprinkling of chopped coriander and mint leaves


Briefly toast the spices in a dry frying pan over a medium heat to get the flavours going, then crush them in a pestle and mortar. 

Fry the onion quite gently in 1 or 2 tablespoon of oil until it softens and starts to take on some colour. Add the garlic and ginger and continue frying for 2 or 3 minutes. Increase the heat a little and add the chunks of lamb. Continue frying for around 5 minutes until the lamb has taken on an even, light colour. Add the crushed spices and the dried chilli and fry for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring all the time.

Stir in the tomatoes and the tomato purée and season with a little salt. Bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, cover the pan and let it simmer gently for 45 minutes. (Make sure the pan is covered well enough and don't allow it to dry out). 

Uncover the pan, increase the heat and, stirring frequently, reduce the sauce until it becomes quite thick and coats the meat. Continue frying the meat in the reduced sauce for around 5 minutes, stirring all the time. (Please don't walk away and leave it at this stage or it will burn and taste bitter). 

Pour in about 1 cup of water and bring back to a simmer. (The amount of water you add is up to you. I prefer it fairly dry but add more or less according to your personal taste.) If you're adding anardana powder then sprinkle a little on now, together with a squeeze of lemon (this helps to freshen the taste). Sprinkle on the chopped mint and coriander immediately before serving.

Rice and a flatbread of some kind would be good with this curry. A pickle with a touch of sharpness (such as lemon pickle) would provide a nice contrast.


Thursday, 23 May 2019

Nonnettes for Early Summer

If you've had the misfortune of following this blog for some time, then it's just about possible you may remember that I've wittered on about nonnettes before. But it's nearly 5 years since I last featured them and, since they're one of my favourite cakes, I don't feel too guilty about wittering on again. After all, imagine how bad you'd feel if you went to see a band and they only played new songs and none of their hits. (It felt pretty bad, actually, but let's not go there).

This version started when my wife was given a jar of local honey produced in the spring. (I admit that my knowledge of honey is minimal at best). This honey is light in colour, less intense than a high summer honey but with some lovely, subtle flavours and I wanted to use it to produce a lighter and fragrant nonnette with some of the flavours of early summer.

I made 11 relatively large cakes with this mix using friand and medium-sized muffin tins. If you choose a small muffin tin, you'll get 15 or more cakes but remember to reduce the amount of jam per cake as well as the cooking time. Whatever tin you use, though, make sure that you butter it carefully because the honey makes these cakes very sticky as they bake.
Early Summer Nonnettes

200 g honey, a light and fragrant type 
100 ml water
100 ml milk (semi-skimmed will do)
100 g golden caster sugar
80 g unsalted butter
Zest of 1 lime (or lemon if you prefer)
200 g plain flour
100 g wholemeal spelt flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp gooseberry jam for every nonnette (cut down the amount for smaller nonnettes)

And for the glaze:
4 or 5 tbsp icing sugar
Elderflower syrup or cordial and lemon (or lime) juice


Put the honey, water, milk, sugar and butter into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring frequently, until the butter has melted, the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is smooth and uniform. Take off the heat and set aside.

Mix together the flours, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and the lime (or lemon) zest. While the honey mixture is still warm, sieve the flour mixture onto it and whisk the two together until smooth. Put the mixture into the fridge and leave it there for at least an hour until thoroughly chilled.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Spoon the mixture into thoroughly buttered tins until they're somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters full. Place a teaspoon of gooseberry jam on top of each nonnette. Bake for 15 – 17 minutes until they're golden brown and spring back when pressed gently. 

While the nonnettes are still warm and in the tin, combine the icing sugar with a mixture of a little elderflower syrup (or cordial) and lemon juice to create a thin icing. Pour the icing over the nonnettes or, better still, spread it on with a pastry brush. The idea is to create something resembling a thin sugar glaze rather than an iced cake. Allow the nonnettes to cool before removing them from the tin.

Nonnettes keep well in an airtight tin but will also freeze very nicely.