Les Couques de Dinant

Earlier this year, I agreed, in a moment of generous madness, that I would cater a family wedding for around 30 people over four nights deep in the Belgian countryside. I mean…how hard could it really be? Of course, I was not going to make all the mistakes that other cooks might make. Oh no, I was going to be organised, I was going to cook everything a couple of times to be sure the recipes were foolproof, I was going to have a detailed set of plans, I would run everything to schedule. A doddle. 120 covers? Ha, I laughed at the task. It’s all in the organisation, or so I thought.

Fast forward to the actual event in May, and I found myself in a hire care, winding along rural roads from Brussels to a small village in the Ardennes. If you don’t know the area, it is very pretty – forests, hills, charming towns and lots to explore. On the way to the venue, I was confident that driving out of Brussels was going to be the only bad thing about this whole trip. Even thought I lived in the Belgian capital for four years, I never got used to some of the worst driving in Western Europe. However, once we’d cleared Brussels, taken the motorway to Namur, and finally reached a small road along the river Meuse in the strawberry region around Wépion, I felt a bit of a sense of relief. A large strawberry ice cream on a patch of grass overlooking the river told me it was all going to be fine now. I had my day-by-day planner, everything would be straightforward. Time to sit back and enjoy the countryside.

Our trip took a took a bit of a detour down to Dinant. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for this place, and from the picture above, you can see why. The Meuse snakes its way along a valley, with long, thin towns lining its banks. And the results are stunning – traditional houses in front of large rock faces. Dinant is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, and today the evidence of this creation is still celebrated in the city.

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During this visit, I came across a traditional biscuit, the couques de dinant. The place where I discovered them was the wonderfully traditional Patisserie Jacobs, which had the various couques in just about every elaborate shape that you could think of – people, animals, baskets of flours and, of course, saxophones. It really was like stepping back in time, and after coffee and a strawberry tart, the helpful lady was happy to explain all about the ingredients, the history and the process of making couques de dinant.

These are traditionally made from very simple ingredients – flour and honey – and shaped into elaborate shapes using wooden moulds, and then baked at a high temperature so that the honey caramelises and they take on a deep, golden colour. There is also a variation, the couques de rins, which are made with added sugar. Apparently, there are rules about ensuring careful labelling so that customers can be sure they are getting exactly the right thing.

Now, these little couques are rather hard to describe…the best I can say is that they are like very hard biscuits, but you don’t actually bite into them. For goodness sake, don’t bite into them! Well, you could, but you would probably break your teeth, and that would be bad. No, the trick with the couques is to break them into pieces, and then pop a small piece into your mouth and let it soften, rather like a sweet. The flavour is very old-fashioned, and sort of reminds me of German Christmas biscuits, also often made with lots of honey.

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When I got back to London, I decided to have a go at making these myself. The good thing about making couques de dinant is that you really can make very small amounts of them, as you just need equal weights of honey and flour. Before making a big batch, I did a little test run with a spoon of honey and an equal weight of plain flour.

What became clear to me very quickly is that the type of honey you use here really does matter. I don’t think it is so much the quality of the honey as such, but you do want something with a strong flavour. My first attempt using a very mild acacia honey was a bit lacklustre. However, a second attempt using a strong wildflower honey was much better, with a much richer flavour.

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Actually making the couques was fairly straightforward. I don’t have an elaborate foot-high wooden stamp of the type they use in traditional Dinant bakeries, but I did have some biscuit presses  from when I made German Springerle a couple of years ago, and I thought using my little pine cone mould would look rather cute. Just roll out the dough, dust very lightly with flour, then press the mould on top. This helps to stop sticking, and in my experience works better than trying to apply the flour to the mould itself (think about it – if the mould is not actually sticky, the flour will just fall off…). Once you’ve got a nice sharp imprint, just use a soft brush to gently sweep away the excess before baking.

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Once you’ve got all the dough ready, just pop in the oven and bake until a rich golden colour. When you remove them from the oven, there is another trick – brush them straight away with some plain water. This makes any remaining patches of flour disappear, and gives the finished couques an attractive sheen. And there you go – you’ve made the couques! If you want to see an expert at work, here is a rather nifty video from a baker in Patisserie Jacobs. It’s in French, but you can still get an idea of the process.

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Now…the big question…what are they actually like? Well, as promised, they are pretty tough. The thinner the couque, the more likely it is to snap, but they don’t seem to end up as crisp and delicate morsels. Just as the lady in the bakery promised, you need to bread off a piece, and just let is melt in the mouth. Not as sensational as macarons or as delicate as florentines, but they’ve got a certain old-fashioned charm, and of course, a delicious strong honey flavour. They also last for absolutely ages, so if you’re looking to make decorative cookies, these are a great option.

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Oh, and that wedding…you might be interested to know how it went? Well, for all my naïve ideas that I could plan everything and have it run like clockwork, that didn’t happen. But you already guess that! I spent the best part of the four days of the wedding celebrations running around in the large kitchen, bossing people about, with about seven different pots on the go at any one time.  Of course, what was fantastic was that with our little kitchen gang, we were able to turn out a series of delicious dishes which the guest and the newlyweds seemed to really enjoy. We did everything from scratch, and the reason we did that rather than using shortcuts was that we all wanted to do something special for the event. We were ambitious, goodness knows we were ambitious, but it all worked, so I hope that we did succeed in helping to make their celebrations a little more special.

So while I spent most of the four days of the wedding celebrations over a hot stove, feeling stressed, tired, frustrated, impatient and probably nearly shouted at lots of people, it was also wonderful, crazy, fantastic fun. I’ve learned a lot about cooking for big groups, and I’ve also realised that I probably don’t plan to open a restaurant quite yes. however, that’s not to say that I don’t still have a little fantasy to open a café floating around in my head…

To make Couques de Dinant (makes around 12-15):

• 250g runny honey
• 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
• dot of oil to grease
• water

1. Preheat the oven the 220°C (430°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub very lightly with vegetable oil.

2. Put the honey in a bowl, and add the flour, a little at a time, until you have a smooth dough. You want a texture that is firm but which can be shaped, so you might need a little more or a little less – go you your gut.

3. Turn the dough onto a well-floured surface and roll to around 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness. Dust with flour and press the mould into the dough, trim and place on the baking tray. Repeat until all the dough is used up.

4. Bake for around 10-15 minutes until golden, turning the tray half-way during baking if needed to get an even colour (watch them – the high honey content means they can easily burn). When done remove from the oven and brush each with a little water. Leave to cool.

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Gaun Yersel, Glasgow!

So, lads and lassies, did you see all that? We’ve had over a week of sporting action from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The opening ceremony was of course a festival of almost every cliché you could imagine – tartan, glens, bagpipes, Scottie dogs, the Loch Ness Monster and a few dancing Tunnocks teacakes – and all of that was brilliant. I went up there for a few days, and the mood in the city was amazing. Friendly people and crowds cheering the athletes. Glasgow did itself and Scotland proud!

Just to finish off the celebration of all things Caledonian, here are a few Scottish recipes that I’ve tackled over the years from those of you that have been watching from further afield and who want to keep the celtic mood going, and perhaps experience some of the flavours of Scotland. Sadly, I don’t have recipe for Scotland’s second national drink, Irn-Bru, that I can share with you. I’ll leave that gastronomical experience for when you’re able to visit…

Macaroon bars. For me, these are one of the most Scottish things you could make. The centre is a simple fondant made from icing sugar and, rather bizarrely, mashed potato! They’re then dipped in chocolate and rolled in toasted coconut to provide a very calorific treat. Go for a long run after eating.

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Shortbread. This is often seen as the “jewel in the crown” of Scotland’s rich baking tradition. It is amazing that this simple combination of butter, flour and sugar can turn into something so delicious and it has been responsible for millions of boxes festooned in tartan, Scottie dogs and thistles.

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Oatcakes. As a healthy counter to those sugar-heavy macaroon bars, oatcakes are another of Scottish baking’s gems. They’re ridiculously simple, just oats, flour, water and salt, but they’re delicious on their own or with good, sharp Scottish cheese.

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Ecclefechan Butter Tart. This one is worth making for the name alone! It originates in the town of Ecclefechan near the border with England, and consists of nuts and dried fruit in a rich filling made with butter and brown sugar. It’s a little bit like Canadian Butter Tarts…I wonder if there is some link there?

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Clapshot. Another simple dish but one which is utterly delicious, believe me. Not much more than potato and neeps (aka turnips, or what the rest of the world calls swede…), mashed up with butter, salt, pepper and sprinkled with chives. This one originates from Orkney.

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Atholl Brose. This is the grand name that is given to an oat milk that is mixed with cream, heather honey and whisky to provide a celebratory tipple that was said to have been a favourite of Queen Victoria.

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Cranachan. Scotland is a big soft fruit producer, and cranachan is a great way to make the most of Scottish raspberries. This is a lovely mixture of toasted oats, softly whipped cream with a dash of whisky and honey, and fresh berries that is the essence of summer. A more sophisticated alternative to Eton Mess!

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Rock Buns. A tea shop staple that I remember from the 1980s – simply fruit buns with a dash of spice. Named after their slightly rustic (rock-like) appearance.

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Empire Biscuits. More tooth-attacking sweetness! These are two buttery biscuits, filled with jam and topped with glacé icing. Originally known as German biscuits, the name was changed to something more patriotic.

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Smiddy Dumpling. Alright, this is perhaps one that is not so widely known, but it nicely showcases the various dark teabreads you might see in Scotland. I got this one from a friend’s mum who lives on the Black Isle, to the north of Inverness. An easy loaf cake to knock up if you don’t fancy getting to grips with boiling the more famous Clootie Dumpling (in an old dish cloth, or cloot, of all things!).

Smiddy_Dumpling

Tattie Scones. A great breakfast favourite – mashed potatoes and flour, cooked dry in a frying pan and then yours to scoff either covered in butter and jam, or as part of a cooked breakfast. Incidentally, these were being served in a bun at the Commonwealth Games…perhaps a bit of a starch overload there?

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Date Bars

I have recently been on a bit of a quest to start finding healthier snacks to take to work. Our café has been selling date and nut bars at a handsome premium, so I thought that I could easily make them myself. I mean, ground up dates and nuts, how hard can it really be? So yes…I’ve basically made what you probably already know  as Lärabars, but bear with me – I’ve actually done a bit of research here, and it turns out that these healthy sweet treats have a bit more history to them that you might think.

One of my most interesting little baking books is Cakes From Around The World by Julie Duff. One of the recipes that has piqued my curiosity is for Egyptian date cakes. These consist of nothing more than dates and almonds, ground with a dash of lemon juice, and then pressed flat between two sheets of rice paper. Julie muses that you can imagine cakes like this being made in ancient times, and having finally tried making date/nut bars, I have to agree.

These date bars are made me think of traditional festive sugar plums. I was always under the impression that sugar plums were some sort of candied treat, finally rolled in sparking crystals, but when I had a go at making them a few years ago, it turned out that they were actually rather like energy balls – little balls of dried fruit and nuts, dusted in icing sugar. It is actually quite interesting to look at that recipe with modern eyes – we see something that might pass for healthy (putting the debate about the amount of sugar in dried fruit to one side) whereas Victorians would have viewed them as luxurious treats, packed with all manner of expensive and exotic ingredients from far away lands. How times have changed.

So when I came to actually making date and nut bars, I didn’t feel that I was just having a go at making something that is a modern idea, but something that actually goes back a long, long way.

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I used a simple ratio of one cup of dates, chopped, and one cup of mixed whole cashews and almonds. In my case the dates were fairly dry, so I soaked them in cold water for five minutes, but if you’re using very juicy dates, such as medjool, then you can probably skip this step. I also added some ground spices that I hoped would provide a bit of a gingerbread effect – ground cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice. I say mixed spice, but as I was feeling lazy, I used the first thing I could find, which happened to be a pot of Garam Masala. While I’m all for using whole spices and grinding them where I can, I think in these bars it is good to use pre-ground, as you’ll struggle to get as fine a powder as you do from a shop-bought mix. You want the flavour to disperse evenly, not little bits of woody cinnamon!

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Once I’d ground the dates to a paste and worked in the nuts, I pretty quickly realised that I had ended up with something that was very sticky and was never going to come together. Luckily, I had a bag of ground almonds to hand, and I kept adding a handful at a time until it worked. It’s hard to say how much you’re need, just keep added a little at a time until the lot seems to come together.

I’m pretty pleased with the final result – kind of fruity and kind of nutty, with a real gingerbread flavour. They are also firmer than I would have expected, and after a few days in the fridge, they defiantly had a slight biscuity/cakey texture. I doubt that I would be able to pass these off as a genuine baked good, but as an easy and fairly innocent treat (just nuts and dates! no butter! no added oil! no refined sugar!) I think they’re pretty darned good.

To make Date Bars

• 1 cup chopped pitted dates
• 1/2 cup whole almonds
• 1/2 cup cashew nuts
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• extra ground almonds

1. Put the chopped dates into a bowl and cover with water. Rest for 5 minutes and drain.

2. In the meantime, grind the nuts. You want a fairly fine powder, but a few larger bits are not a problem.

3. Put the dates into a food processor and work into a smooth paste. Add the spices and the nuts, and mix well.

4. Remove the mixture from the food processor, and add as much of the ground almonds as needed until it comes together.

5. Roll the mixture into a square, wrap in cling film, and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

6. Cut into pieces and store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Worth making? I am completely impressed with how easy this recipe is and just how good they taste. A much better alternative to chocolate biscuits mid-morning!

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Secret Chocolate (Not Brazil) Nut Brownies

It’s the Fourth of July, and who could resist a tray of soft, squidgy chocolate brownies?

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Given that we’re all a little bit obsessed with the World Cup at the moment, when I first thought of posting this, I planned to give them a bit of a tropical theme, with a liberal scattering of Brazil nuts in honour of the host nation. That was Monday.

On Tuesday, the USA got knocked out by Belgium, so suddenly that didn’t seem like such a good idea any more. The Brazil nuts were out, and good old patriotic walnuts and pecans went into them instead. I also made sure that I was not using Belgian chocolate in this recipe, as that would have been a bit of an insult after the Red Devils triumphed in Salvador…

At this stage, I need to ‘fess up to the fact that this recipe is more or less one from Delia Smith, but it also has the honour of being one of the recipes that I have been making the longest. I saw this on TV early on in my university days (remember that time when you saw things on TV and had to scribble them down, rather than just looking them up on Google later? Yes, this is one of those!). The only tweaks I’ve made are to use salted butter (believe me, it works), vanilla, a bit of cocoa powder and…some great big dirty spoonfuls of Nutella!

Yes, my secret weapon for making brownies it to add spoonfuls of the stuff. I’ve found the way to make them even less healthy than they normally are (unless, of course, I were to try deep-frying them, but I’m sure there is a chip shop in Glasgow that’s one step ahead of me). Yes, Nutella sounds odd, but it really is amazing. I pour half the batter into the tray, then drizzle with softened Nutella (pop in the microwave to make it runny), sprinkle with nuts and pour over the rest of the mixture. I think my original idea was that there would be a seam of chocolate spread running through the finished brownies, but in the end, it just soaks into them and makes them extra soft, sticky and delicious. I remember turning out trays of the things, and they would be wolfed down when we got in late, during film nights…you get the picture.

So, are these babies healthy? Absolutely not. But are they naught and delicious? Of course! And if you’re in the mood for celebrating, it’s only right to treat yourself.

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To make Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Delia Smith, makes 16-25):

• 175g salted butter
• 125g dark chocolate
• 3 eggs, beaten
• 275g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 75g plain flour
• 25g cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon  baking powder
• 100g chopped nuts
• 4 tablespoon Nutella, warmed

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Line a 25 x 25 cm (10 x 10 inch) square tray with greaseproof paper (I used one of 20 x 20, and filled a few cupcake cases to make mini-brownies).

2. Put the butter and chocolate into a bowl, and place on top of a pan of barely simmering water. Leave to melt. In the meantime, mix the flour, cocoa and baking powder in a separate bowl.

3. Stir the butter/chocolate mixture well, then fold in the sugar. Next, add the vanilla extract and the eggs. Whisk. Add the flour mixture and stir well.

4. Pour half of the brownie mixture into the tray. Sprinkle the nuts on top, then drizzle the Nutella as evenly as you can (doesn’t have the be perfect). Carefully pour the rest of the mixture on top, and smooth gently with a fork.

5. Put the tray into the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Watch out that the mixture does not burn – it will shrink back from the sides.

6. When ready, remove from the oven and leave in the try to cool. When cold, remove from the tray and cut into 25 pieces (I did 16, but remember I was using the smaller tray!).

Worth making?Absolutely. Got to be grateful for Uncle Sam for inventing these things!

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Zippy Ginger Beer

You might have seen my post a few days ago about oleo saccharum. I promised an idea of what to make with it, and here it is!

For the oleo saccharum novice (like me!) ginger is one of the best starting points. The fresh root is plump and juicy, so when peeled, finely sliced and mixed with sugar, all that fiery ginger flavour is sucked out, leaving a delicious syrup. Very little effort and no cooking involved, and the perfect base for a refreshing summery jug of ginger beer to enjoy on the lawn, perusing all those flowers that you’ve spent months and months nurturing.

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Alright, I know that this sort of ginger beer is not the stuff that you leave to ferment for days, only for it to explode violently in your kitchen. This is more like ginger lemonade, but it’s a lot easier to make, as well as being just a little bit safer!

Now, there is actually also a bonus to handling your ginger in this way. Not only is it much easier to peel, slice and mix the ginger with sugar rather than cooking it into a syrup, but apparently the stuff in raw ginger that makes it spicy is different to the stuff that makes cooked ginger feel hot, so you’re actually getting something that is much closer to the flavour of fresh ginger. Once you’ve got your syrup, you can also keep the ginger, let it dry slightly in a low oven, then roll in granulated sugar to top cakes, gingerbread etc. That, or just chuck it into your ginger beer later on…

When it comes to actually making your ginger beer, is a complete doddle. Start with some citrus juice in a jug. Lemon is classic, but I think lime adds a bit more of a tropical twist, and grapefruit would makes for an unusual and sophisticated take on a summer cooler. You do need to add some sort of citrus – I tested the syrup with some soda water, and found the flavour both cloying and flat. Add the lime, and it really transforms it. Anyway, add some of the ginger syrup to the citrus juice (start with too little, you can always add more later), top up with water (still or sparkling), add some ice and serve to thirsty guests!

And the picture below? Just some of the teasel that I’ve been growing from seed in my garden. Pretty, yes?

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{If you are a plant spotter and trying to work out what I have growing in my garden – there is teasel, daisies, delphiniums, campion and Welsh poppies and red and pink roses on the back wall}

To make ginger beer:

• 100g peeled fresh ginger
150g white sugar
2 limes or 1 large lemon, juice only
1 litre soda or sparkling mineral water

1. Shred the ginger as finely as you can – you want to expose maximum surface area. Mix with the sugar in a bowl, cover, and leave for 24 hours (stirring from time to time). The mixture should look syrupy when ready. Strain if you want to.

2. Add the lime or lemon juice to a jug, plus 3 tablespoons of the ginger syrup. Top up with water, mix to combine, and taste – you might want to add more ginger syrup.

3. Enjoy on ice, in the garden!

Worth making? This is a great recipe – really easy, and a lovely refreshing taste. Sure, it is sweetened with sugar, but at least you can enjoy it in the knowledge that there are not artificial nasties in there.

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Oleo Saccharum

After my experiments with brewing ginger beer, I’m going to keep the drinks theme going here.

In my many hours of browsing food websites (I live in London – I spend a lot of time sitting in buses checking out blogs on my phone!), I recently came across a recipe for something called oleo saccharum. If you’re wondering what that means, then you share the exact same thought that popped into my head when I heard about it. It roughly means “sugary oil”. Sounds unappealing, but bear with me.

The idea is a way to extract an intensely flavoured syrup from citrus peel, and so it is perfect for mixing up drinks and cocktails. You simply take a bunch of citrus peel, trim off any bitter pith, then pop in a bag with some sugar. Seal the bag, rub the sugar into the peel to get things going, and let everything sit until the sugar dissolves and turns into a richly flavoured and very aromatic syrup.

Well, that’s the theory. And while most people seem to make oleo saccharum from citrus peel, there is no reason you can’t get a little creative. If it’s aromatic and could go in a drink, you can mix it with sugar and wait. If you’ve ever left strawberries to macerate in a little sugar in a bowl, you get that sweet, pure syrup after a while – well, that’s basically it! The key thing here is that there is no cooking involved, so you don’t risk the volatile aromatic elements of your ingredients being lost. Just mix your ingredients and allow time to do the rest.

So I had a go at making three types – a lime version as a nod to the traditional, plus ginger and rose. Three very different ingredients, resulting in three aromatic syrups.

oleosaccharum

Of the three, ginger was definitely the easiest and gives the best yield. I had a large, juicy bulb of ginger, so it was pretty evident that this was going to provide a lot of flavour. Peel it, slice it and chop it – don’t be tempted to grate it, as you’ll lose some of that all-important ginger juice. As there is a lot of moisture in there, the sugar really does a good job in sucking out all the ginger flavour, so you get a decent amount of syrup. As a bonus, the remaining ginger is sweet and perfect to add to a fruit salad or sprinkle on top of desserts, cakes etc.

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The version with lime was pretty successful. What you do need to accept is that you will need to add a lot of lime peel to get a decent amount of oleo saccharum, but after that, things happen pretty easily. Of the three versions, I think this is the one that benefits most from being put into the bag with the sugar, and having an extended period of, ahm, “caressing” to allow the rough sugar crystals to work their magic on the zest, extracting those precious aromatic oils.

The result was an intensly-perfumed syrup with a strong, fresh lime aroma and a little bitter twist, ever so slightly reminiscent of marmalade. I think this is a good option for a cocktail where you want something more sophisticated than just plan sour and a basic lime flavour – give an extra twist to a caiperinha, or make an old-fashioned with just whisky and orange oleo saccharum. If you’re keen to get a food yield, I would opt for oranges or lemons (easier to peel, and less dry) or go for the more exotic flavour of grapefruit.

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Last but not least was the version made with rose. This really was a spur of the moment decision, but I am lucky enough to have some beautiful pink and red roses in the garden with a heavy scent. A few were just past their best, so I took the chance and tried it out.

Of the three, this was definitely the trickiest. I had imagined that the rose petals would contain sufficient water to make this a doddle, but it seems that there was not actually that much moisture in them. Rubbing the sugar and petals in the bag did seem to break them drown and draw out the colour and flavour, but it seemed very dry, so I had to add a few drops of filtered water to make sure the sugar went from a thick, sticky mass to a syrup. This was really a case of drop-by-drop.

Sadly, the result did not look like the pretty colour of the pink roses from my garden, rather it was a dirty reddish-brown hue. Not what I was looking for! Then then I remembered that you need to add lemon juice, and just one drop transformed this oleo saccharum to a soft pink. Perfect!

roseoleosaccharum

While a little more demanding to make, I think the flavour of the rose oleo saccharum was really quite remarkable. Rose extract or rose water can often be very flat and synthetic, to the point of being overpowering, but made this way, the flavour really does seem to have a light freshness to it. This is not simple and floral, but subtle, complex and with the slightest hint of plant (in a good way). I think could be quite exceptional in a glass of sparkling wine or as the basis for a rose sherbet, where the bubbles will bring those complex rose aromas to the surface to tickle your nose.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. I’m keen to try this approach with other ingredients – an easy way to make simply, fresh syrups from soft fruits, but don’t limit yourself. Make the ultimate mint syrup…cucumber syrup…lots of possibilities!

To make oleo saccharum:

The following are a guide only. If you find the mixture is not liquid enough and the sugar has not dissolved, add a little filtered water and leave to rest for another 30 minutes.

Ginger oleo saccharum

• 100g peeled ginger, finely shredded
• 150g white caster sugar

1. Mix well. Leave in a covered bowl or bag for 24 hours. Strain.

Lime oleo saccharum

• 6 large limes (as fresh as possible)
• 100g white caster sugar

1. Cut the peel from the limes in strips. Trim off any white pith.

2. Mix well. Leave in a covered bowl or bag for 24 hours. If there is any sugar left, add a little lime juice until dissolved. Strain.

Rose oleo saccharum

• 4 red roses
• 50g caster sugar
• filtered water
• 1-2 drops lemon juice

1. Pick the petals from the roses. Check for bugs, rinse gentle and pat dry with a very clean cloth.

2. Place petals and sugar into a plastic bag. Squeeze out the air and rub the sugar into the petals. Leave the rest for 24 hours.

3. Check the oleo saccharum. If not sufficiently syrup-like, add a few drops of water.

4. Add a few drops of lemon juice and swirl until the syrup changes from murky to bright pink.

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Hot Ginger

From time to time, I get a request in my inbox suggesting I have a go at something, and from time to time, that suggestion is really rather tempting. This was an invitation from the folk at Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky to have a go at making my own ginger mixer.

The brief was pretty broad: A big, bold whisky such as Johnnie Walker Red Label demands a mixer to match. So I was to go forth, and make a ginger beer (the real stuff, brewed with a little yeast for lots of natural fizz) and try to craft the flavour to work with a bottle of Johnnie. So…how on earth was this going to work?

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First off, I need to fess up that I’ve never made ginger beer before. All I knew before starting was that you need a lot of fresh ginger to get a robust flavour, and there is the ever-present danger that the brewing mixture can get a little too frisky and cause glass bottles to explode, so it is essential to start your brew in plastic bottles, and then only store in glass when everything has settled down. Even then, you need to open the top from time to time to let all that gas escape, which is usually accompanied by what looks like a wisp of white smoke.

So, imagine me, in the kitchen, going mano a mano with a ginger beer kit. It was pretty cool actually – a bottle of Johnnie plus a selection of different types of fresh ginger. Sweet picked ginger, familiar Chinese ginger, fiery galangal and…eh…one that I forget the name of, but I didn’t like it. The idea was to major on the ginger, then use whatever additional flavours I wanted to round out the mixer.

Now, I’m all for the throw-a-bit-of-everything-into-something-and-hope-for-the-best approach when it comes to deploying spices, but I felt the need to adopt a more sophisticated approach. I was a little concerned that if I threw too many spices in there, the result would be more like a loaf of gingerbread laced with whisky. Pretty nice, but probably not what you might think of as a “bold mixer”. Then I had a flash of inspiration – something Caribbean, with notions of juicy limes, hot ginger and fiery pepper. This seemed like a good place to start.

All well and good, but I felt that I had to think a little about the ultimate pairing. No point in making a mixer that didn’t go with that all-important measure of Johnnie Red. Off I went into the living room to retrieve a Glencairn glass, and I poured myself a tot of whisky. I mulled over the flavours that I was getting, then added a tiny dash of water to open up the flavour (not loads, and definitely not on ice – I know on the rocks is a classic, but I prefer to sip my whisky in a way that allows me to taste it properly). There was a clear mellow sweetness coupled with a slight hint of pepper. I had been thinking of using black pepper to provide a bit of zing to my mixer, but it wasn’t quite right. As you can imagine, I was sitting on the sofa, glass in front of me, and then comparing it to an array of spices. Cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, nigella and saffron were all rejected as just not being right. Tonka beans smelled delicious (think tobacco, marzipan and vanilla) but they would have been the flavour equivalent of driving a truck through the whisky, all impact and no subtlety. Then came the red pepper. Almost overlooked, but that warm, aromatic heat seemed to complement the whisky perfectly. Plus, Johnnie Red and red pepper, surely a bit of a good luck sign?

ginger_beer_pepper

The actual brewing process was great fun – shred loads of ginger, mix it up with lime juice and watch it turn from pale yellow to soft pink. Then I added a good amount of crushed red pepper, and mixed in a bottle with sugar, water and a little yeast. And…that was it. Now a case of watching and waiting. I got quite a thrill when I could watch my little creation fizzing away as the yeast got jiggy in the bottle.

whiskyginger1

As I had enough time to do this, I let the mixture ferment for 48 hours. By that stage, it was fizzy, but still sweet enough to make for a pleasant drink when chilled. The pepper was there, not slap-in-the-face obvious, but more a deeper warmth when you drank it. When mixed up on ice with a generous shot of Johnnie Red and a slice of lime, I was pretty pleased with how it tasted. More complexity than pure ginger, but not with so many different flavours that it was confused as to what it was trying to be – this was ginger and red pepper, pure and simple, with a twist of lime.

So what happens next? Well, my little bottle of magic was last seen cocooned in bubble wrap as it was whisked off by a courier to be judged by Bompas and Parr (the jellymongers – whatever you’ve dreamed of in jelly form, those men can do it) as well as Ross Purnell, London Brand Ambassador of Johnnie Walker Red Label. Fingers crossed that red pepper will do the trick…

whiskyginger2

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how this turned out, and I tested it on a few willing victims to check that I had actually done a decent job. However, there were two characters who had major objections. Those objections came from our cats, Tommy and Persy, who initially scarpered every time I opened the brew to let the gas escape. The loud hisssssssss  was not to their liking! By the end of the second day, they had gotten used to this, and instead just cast over a series of withering looks whenever I did this. Here you can see typical “before” and “after” looks, with faces ranging from disdain to indifference…

persy tommy

Now, the big question…will I make this again? Well, the flavour was great when the drink was at its peak, and it was fun to make, but given the random nature of the British weather, I’m not sure I’ll be brewing ginger beer on the off-chance that it might be a nice weekend. I also found this was a fickle drink. A few days later, I found the flavour had gone really flat – clearly the yeast was still fermenting away, and the amount of sugar had dropped.

So I will be making more spiced ginger mixers in the future, but I’ll go for a different method. In fact, I’ve already got a recipe up my sleeve. How will I make it? Well…you’ll have to wait for my next post, but at least it is cat-friendly. Happy guessing!

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Kulich

Have you been able to enjoy some good weather recently? In the last few weeks, things seem to be warming up, and my garden is full of the joys of spring – the clematis is heavy with pale pink blooms, and the tulips that seemed only a week ago to be tentative at best are now adding extravagant bursts of colour – reds, golds and purples. A few other more traditional flowers are also starting to peek out from the sea of green, and it really does feel like summer days are not far away now.

Actually, I’m under-selling this time of year. I have just spent Easter in Scotland, and against all expectations was able to enjoy some spectacular sunny weather – clear blue skies and lovely views. Walks in the countryside, a picnic by a loch, a ride in a hot air balloon and visits to ancient castles, all in the blazing sunshine. The result of all this excitement was that, eh, I actually got a little behind on blogging and did not get round to posting some of my Easter baking. So I’m afraid you’re going to have to bear with me as I write about some seasonal bakes with a slight time lag. Better late than never!

Easter offers quite a lot of options when it comes to baking. The most obvious thing to do is whip up a batch of Hot Cross Buns, rich with spice and finished with a sticky honey glaze. Well, it would be, except the bakery round the corner makes amazing buns, so I’ve been tucking into plenty of those rather than making them myself. So that left me with the task of trying something a little different, and I though I’d have a go at making traditional Russian kulich. Something like this!

kulich

The most striking thing about kulich is the shape of the loaf – tall and slim, with domed top drizzled with a little icing (or in my case – slathered with lots of icing!). It is topped with a few slivers of candied peel, or more traditionally, some edible spring flowers. To get this shape, the easiest way is to use a large-ish tin can, then just wash it out, and line it well with greaseproof paper on the bottom and the sides, and you’ve got a good makeshift kulich tin. One little tip though – don’t use a can that held garlic cloves or strong curry – they can hold the flavours of their original contents, and I think an curry-garlic kulich is a flavour experience that I can happily live without. In my case, I used a tall milk pan, which had a useful handle that made putting it into the oven a little easier.

Now, I have seen this refered to in a few places as “Russian Panettone” which I think does a bit of a disservice to this bread. You find enriched, spiced, fruited breads across Europe, but I guess that the Italian version is so well-known that they’ve got that market cornered. While there are some superficial similarities, kulich has different spices, including cardamom as well as a little saffron for the adventurous. I find saffron and cardamom a curious combination, one that I really have not seen together very often at all, although I did make an Estonian Christmas wreath last year with that flavour pairing, and I can assure you that it really is very, very delicious. That, and the dough will have the most amazing golden colour!

That said…the recipe I’ve used is actually my own Panettone recipe, as it is one that I have made many, many times and I am very happy that it works well, with a good but not overwhelming amount of fruit and candied peel. Well, it’s Panettone, albeit tweaked to reflect the usual Russian ingredients, and baked in the traditional shape. Matryoshkas and babushkas might find this a little bit strange, but it works.

When faced with such a tall loaf, you might wonder how on earth to cut it. Well, rather than trying to cut it like a cake, lay it on the side and cut it into slices. Hey presto – circles of kulich! This does of course mean that some lucky person will get the last slide, smothered in sweet icing. Kulich is traditionally served with pashka, a sweetened cream cheese mixture prepared in intricate moulds. However, it is equally delicious on its own, or served toasted and spread with butter and jam or honey.

To make one large or two small kulich:

• 80ml milk
• Large pinch freshly ground nutmeg
• Large pinch saffron strands
• 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 egg
• 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 35g butter

• 25g sugar
• Pinch of salt
• Zest of 1/2 orange
• 3/4 teaspoon dried yeast
• 200g strong white flour
• 75g dried fruit (such as currants and golden sultanas)
• 40g candied peel, diced
• 25g slivered almonds

1. Put the milk in a small pan. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add the spices, then leave to one side until lukewarm.

2. Mix the egg and vanilla into the milk and blend well.

3a. If using a bread machine: Throw everything into the mixing bowl (put the fruit, peel and almonds into the raisin compartment). Run the “dough” cycle. Simples!

3b. If making by hand: put the flour and butter into a bowl, and rub with your fingers until the butter has been incorporated. Fold in the salt, sugar, orange zest and yeast. Add the milk/egg mixture. Stir with a spoon, then work with your hands until you have a smooth, stretchy, silky dough (at least 5 minutes). Work in the fruit, peel and almonds. Leave the dough a warm place for an hour until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

4. Once the dough is ready, prepare either one large or two normal tin cans by lining with greaseproof paper (make sure to leave a high collar around the top, as the dough will rise a lot). Take the dough out of the machine, form into one or two balls as needed, then drop into the tin(s). Leave in a warm place covered in cling film for about one hour until the dough has reached to top of the tin.

5. In the meantime, preheat the oven at 180°C (350°F). Put the kulich into the oven, baking for around 15-20 minutes for smaller loaves or 25-30 minutes for a larger loaf (they should sound hollow when tapped). If the top is browning too quickly, cover loosely with tin foil. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before icing.

For the icing:

• 100g icing sugar
• 4 teaspoons water
• slivers of candied citrus peel

6. Mix the icing sugar and water until smooth. Spread on top of the kulich being sure the encourage a few dramatic drips down the side.

7. Finish with a few slivers of citrus peel on top.

Worth making? Definitely. This is a delicious, aromatic loaf which makes a lovely teatime treat. This is equally delicious slices and toasted for breakfast.

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Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

GinBotanicals1

After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

GinBotanicals2

It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Pistachio Tuiles

I’m one of those bakers that likes to veer between madly complicated recipes and ridiculously simple bakes. Well, today I’ve had a bash at something that steers a nice line between both, using just a few simple ingredients that really just need to be mixed together. The magic part happens during baking, with a quick sleight of hand right after everything comes out of the oven. Intrigued? Then read on.

Today’s recipe is for delicate tuile biscuits. Tuiles literally mean “tiles” in French, as these thin, crisp little biscuits are said to resemble the look of Gallic rooftops. A simple batter is spread into very thin discs on a baking tray. They are baked briefly, and come of the oven with golden brown edges, but they are still soft. This allows you to lift them from the tray, drape them over some sort of mould (a rolling pin, a wine bottle…). The soft tuiles will wrap themselves around their new resting place, giving them their traditional curved shape. After a few moments, the tuiles will be cooled and very crisp. As you can see below, they take on a very elegant, almost ethereal appearance.

pistachiotuiles

These really as biscuits that you could mix up in a moment – you need nothing more than egg white, sugar, flour and butter. I’ve sought to jazz mine up a little, and have rather boldly referred to mine as pistachio tuiles. In fact, I’ve really only added chopped pistachios for the colour contrast, along with a few drops of almond extract for some added aroma. You could use anything you fancy for decoration – a few flaked almonds, a sprinkling of sesame, a scattering of poppy seeds or even dried citrus zest, so match them to your preferred dessert. The only thing to keep in mind is that these biscuits are delicate, so while slivers of pecan might work, whole walnut halves might look a touch bizarre.

Tuiles are delicious as they are, a crisp, sweet treat to enjoy with coffee, or to grace all manner of creamy puddings, from posset to custard, providing a pleasant crunch alongside your dessert. Alternatively, you could dip or drizzle with chocolate. One tip to bear in mind – while the tuiles will be crisp initially, they need to be kept in an airtight container, or they will soften after a couple of hours. It this does happen, then just pop them back in the oven – they will soften again, and you can place them back onto your rolling pin/wine bottle and they will be deliciously crisp again. Just don’t try this if you’ve already dipped them in chocolate…

To make pistachio tuiles (makes around 15):

• 1 large egg white
• 50g white caster sugar
• 25g plain flour
• 15g unsalted butter
• Few drop vanilla of almond extract
• Handful unsalted pistachios, sliced

1. Preheat the oven to 190 C. Grease a non-stick try with butter.

2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Leave to one side to cool.

3. In a bowl, whisk the egg with the sugar until smooth. The mixture should be just slightly foamy. Add the flour and mix to a smooth paste. Add the vanilla or almond extract (if using), then stir in the butter and mix well.

4. Drop teaspoons of the mixture onto the baking tray. Use the back of a teaspoon to spread into a disc of around 10 cm (4 inch) diameter. Don’t worry if the batter looks like it has been too thinly spread, as long as there are no gaps. Sprinkle with a few pistachio slivers.

5. Bake for 4-5 minutes, until the edges are golden (you can bake them longer until they are completely browned if you prefer). Remove from the oven, then use a large, sharp knife to lift them off the tray and transfer to a rolling pin or wine bottle. Let the tuiles cool completely, then remove the crisp tuiles to a serving plate.

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