Monthly Archives: June 2011

Creamy Baked Fennel

Fennel is a funny old vegetable. I like its aromatic, aniseed-like qualities, but this also means that I’m often at a bit of a loose end about what to do with it. My normal fall-back position with vegetables is to throw them in a mixed salad with lots of green leaves, but with fennel, it just doesn’t seem quite right. The flavour needs to be appreciated.

One delicious idea that I do make from time to time is use it as a starter. Slice it wafer-thin, then serve it with slivers of strong cheddar and drizzle with a sherry/honey reduction. The sharp, tangy cheddar makes the perfect foil for the crisp, cool shards of fennel. But…that’s been about the limits of my adventures with fennel (a phrase that I really never thought I would write. Not that I ever worried about when I would write that, but you know what I mean).

Now, this is where the new recipe comes in. It’s one that I picked up from the saveur.com website, which is always good for a new idea to do with just about any ingredient you can imagine. This way of cooking fennel is an absolute doddle to make – lots of pepper, cream, Parmesan cheese and slabs of fennel, all mixed up in a bowl, thrown in a dish, then baked for about an hour and a half until the whole lot has become soft, creamy and delicious. I did make a bit of a tweak to the recipe, adding less cream than recommended, and it was great.

For all that time in the oven, the fennel becomes nice and soft, but it doesn’t turn mushy. Then towards the end, whip off the foil, and the cheese on top becomes crisp and tasty. You’ve still got the distinctive fennel flavour, but it’s milder and partners well with the Parmesan.

I admit that my version of this dish did not look particularly pretty. I could have taken the time to lay out the pieces of fennel in some intricate pattern, but I adopted the “mix-it-and-put-in-a-dish” approach to preparing it. It still tasted great, and frankly, that is much more important.

To make creamy baked fennel:

• 2 fennel bulbs
• 300ml cream
• salt
• pepper
• 2 handfuls grated Parmesan
• large knob of butter, cut into small pieces

Pre-heat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

Clean the fennel and remove the green stalks. Cut the bulbs in half, then quarters, and slice into wedges about 1cm (1/3 inch) thickness.

Put everything except the butter into a bowl and mix well. Transfer to an ovenproof dish, dot with the butter, cover with tin foil, and bake.

After one hour, remove the tin foil, and bake for another 30 minutes until the fennel is golden on top.

Serve warm as a side dish for four people, or as a main with salad and a little pasta as a main for two.

Worth making? I love this way of cooking fennel. I’ve never tried it before, but it’s incredibly simple and yet incredibly tasty. It’s also very tasty at room temperature the next day as part of lunch. Just in case you feel like erring on the generous side when making this…

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Churn, Baby, Churn! Strawberry Frozen Yoghurt

I look outside. The sky is leaden and overbearing, then it starts to lash with rain. Yup, the Great British Summer is well and truly underway, which means we’ve been enjoying the downpour for about a week now. In fact, we enjoyed Midsummer yesterday, with a flash of sun in London, which swiftly turned to cats and dogs.

But ’twas not ever thus…we were all lulled into a false sense of hope with a few weeks of sun earlier in the summer, then – wham! – the rains came, and kept coming. I often find myself wandering around humming that classic Eurythmics track Here Comes the Rain Again. Seems really rather fitting.

However…let us not forget those spectacular sunny days in late spring and early summer that we did enjoy. Why so relevant to us now? Well, it’s more than a mere memory, as it gave all those fields of soft fruit here in Britain a bit of a kick start, so we are now enjoying a bumper crop of sweet, delicious berries. I’ve been ignoring the imports, and heading straight for the fruit from Kent and Sussex.

Last summer, I made a superb strawberry sorbet (and it was superb – not being big headed), so I thought this time I would do a variation on a theme, and make strawberry frozen yoghurt. I love frozen yoghurt, as it is light and refreshing, with a welcome icy tang – perfect for a hot day. Pair this with delicious fruit and it’s a winning combination.

This recipe is one from David Leibovitz, but I pared down the method to make a bit more “mash up the fruit, then whizz in the blender, then freeze”.

So apart from macerating the fruit (the benefits of maceration explained here), it doesn’t need any cooking or messing around with hot sugar syrup. Thus, it’s perfect to make when you’re busy with other things. Plus, the colour is hot pink, so guaranteed to brighten up those rainy days.

To make strawberry frozen yoghurt (adapted from David Leibovitz):

• 450g strawberries(*)
• 130g white sugar
• 2 teaspoons vodka or limoncello
• 240g natural yogurt
• 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Put the strawberries, sugar and vodka/limoncello in a bowl, and mash roughly. Leave to stand, covered, at room temperature until the sugar has dissolved (at least 30 minutes, but as long as you can manage).

Throw the strawberry mixture, lemon juice and yoghurt in a blender. Blitz until smooth. If you don’t like seeds, pass through a strainer. If you don’t care, just leave them in.

Chill the mixture in the fridge, then freeze according to your ice cream machine.

(*) Weight after removing stalks and any bad bits.

Worth making? Love it. Love it. Love it. Quick, fresh and delicious, cream and tangy – the essence of summer. Love it!

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Rock On!

If you grew up in Britain, then you surely remember rock buns?

This is a recipe that I remember from years ago. It’s got a bit of a retro feel to it, but that fits right in to all the traditional baking that we are (supposedly) doing these days. You can’t go out for a cup of tea in the afternoon these days without (metaphorically) tripping over flapjacks, coffee walnut cake, scones and the famous Victoria sponge. Rock buns are similarly traditional, straightforward, simple to make and rather comforting.

Rock buns are great for a number of reasons. Chances are that you’ve got all the ingredients in your store cupboard right now. Even if you don’t have them exactly, you can chop-and-change to some extent, using different types of sugar and different dried fruit. They are also an absolute doddle to make – you can do it all in 5 minutes, and they can be eaten warm from the oven or left to cool – perfect if you have guests coming at short notice. Also, if you like things spicy, you can add a dash of whatever takes your fancy – cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon or mixed spice (like this).

In terms of texture, they are a bit like a scone, although they have a lot more butter and less milk, so the texture is richer and crumbly. Great on their own, or spread with a little butter and jam while still warm.

The only thing you need to worry about is how they look. They are called rock buns for a reason – we are not aiming for a smooth surface. It should look rough, which is usually pretty easy to achieve. The look is further achieved by sprinkling with a little granulated sugar, so they sparkle a little bit like granite. Alright, this last stage might be stretching things a little bit far, but it does add a nice bit of extra crunch.

To make rock buns (makes 8):

• 200g self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of spice
• 100g butter
• 75g white caster sugar or soft brown sugar(*)
• 1 egg
• 2-3 tablespoons milk
• 75g sultanas (or other dried fruit)
• granulated sugar (to sprinkle)

Preheat the oven to 190°C (370°F). Grease a baking sheet.

In a bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and spice. Rub in the butter using your fingers. Add the sugar and mix well.

Add the egg plus enough milk to make a soft dough. It should be soft and a bit sticky, but not in any way runny. Finish by mixing in the fruit.

Form the dough into 8 buns, making sure they look rough enough (**). Place on the baking sheet and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

Bake for 15 minutes. The buns are ready when they are golden, and an inserted cocktail stick comes out clean. Enjoy warm or cold.

(*) I used 25g white caster sugar and 50g soft brown sugar.

(**) Form the buns using your hands or tablespoons. However, you can also use in ice cream scoop (the sort with the button and the “bit” at the back of the scoop – this gives you equal measures, and the resulting buns look satisfyingly “rocky”.

Worth making? These are super-quick and very easy to make, and taste great, like a cross between cake and a scone. Good to have in the back pocket when you need to produce something for guests, and a nice recipe for kids that don’t want to wait too long to tuck in to their hard work.

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London Currant Tart

A while ago, I did a post about Scotland’s famous Ecclefechan Butter Tart. Today, I’ve done a bit of a variation on a theme. In place of the mixed dried fruit and nuts, it’s just currants, currants, currants, all enrobed in butter, sugar and eggs for a slightly custard-like touch.

However, never the one to resist making little tweaks, I did make a few more changes.

Firstly, I soaked the currants before using them. As they are already quite sweet, but seems just a tad too dry. I was just looking to make them more juicy, and six large spoons of brandy did the trick. I left the currants to soak for a couple of hours to make sure that they absorbed all the brandy and were appropriately plump.

Next, I also added the zest of half a lemon – I got the feeling that the filling could be a little too rich with just the raisins and the custardy filling. Luckily, this was the right call – just enough zestiness to lift the tart, but not so much as to overpower the currant flavour.

The resulting tart is quite different to the Ecclefechan Butter Tart. This is mainly due to the fact there is a lot more fruit in this version, so the butter mixture just holds everything together, rather than become thick, sweet and caramel-like. In fact, I thought it tasted a little bit festive, and it reminded me of that other Scottish favourite, Black Bun, which is a New Year speciality. It’s quite a grown-up flavour, and I defy anyone to unveil something with this amount of dried fruit in front of a small child and not provoke screaming. Just to warn you!

Now, the name. Would love to claim that this is some sort of recipe with an ancient pedigree from this great metropolis, but it’s just an attempt to be playful (given that, eh, it’s based on a recipe from the Scottish town of Ecclefechan…). So, as far as I know, this is the first time this sort of tart has been made. Hence I’ve called this the London Currant Tart.

Let’s see if that catches on.

To make a London Currant Tart:

For the pastry:

• 100g plain flour
• 50g butter, cold, cut into cubes
• 25g caster sugar
• 1 egg yolk
• cold water

In a bowl, rub the butter into the flour. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, add the sugar and mix well. Add the egg yolk and just enough cold water so the mixture comes together (1-2 tablespoons of water is probably enough).

Cover the pastry in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Use to line a 20cm loose-bottomed flan dish (the pastry will be quite thin), and prick with a fork. Place the tart shell in the fridge while making the filling.

For the filling:

• 500g currants
• 6 tablespoons (100ml) brandy

• 125g butter, melted and cooled

• 200g white caster sugar
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
• zest of 1/2 lemon

In a bowl, mix the currants and brandy. Leave to stand until the brandy has been absorbed.

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

In a bowl, combine the sugar, butter and eggs. Stir in the vinegar, then fold in the currants and lemon zest. Pour into the pastry shell.

Bake the tart for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is golden and the filling is slightly puffy and lightly browned in the centre (turn the tart during baking).

Serve cold, either as is or with a light dusting of icing sugar for a dressier look.

Worth making? Obviously this is a tart for those who like currants, but if you do, it’s delicious! But it can be tweaked to use sultanas or possibly cranberries, and you can tweak the flavour by adding orange zest or a dash of spice. This would also make nice little individual tarts, the likes of which you might expect to grace a fashionable tea party down Kensington or Chelsea way.

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Vanilla Sugar

In a bit of a change from my usual posts, it’s time for a bit of musing. So tell me..what’s in your kitchen cupboard?

I don’t know about you, but I always find it quite interesting to have a rake around inside someone else’s store cupboards. Obviously I am not one of those people who goes for a snoop uninvited, but…if I’m helping out with the cooking…it’s intresting to see what they’ve got to hand. I have quite a few friends who, when they are travelling, will pick up local oil, herbs and spices or other culintary items, so it’s nice to see something new, or an old favourite that you’ve not seen for years. A spice you’ve never seen before can lead to a whole chat about a trip, the food and a recipe. Which is a nice way to catch up with friends.

At home, one of my favourite things is a large glass pot from last year’s holiday in France that I’ve filled with some used vanilla pods and a lot of caster sugar. Leave it for a few days, and voila, it’s a large pot of fragrant vanilla sugar!

You could use a new vanilla pod for this, but you can get more bang for your buck in these straightened times by re-using pods that have been floating around in milk for making custard. Just be sure to rinse them and let them dry properly before using. “Fresh” pods might work better, but I can’t really tell the difference myself…

You also get a lot of vanilla sugar for not much cash – you only need to use a little to impart a delicious vanilla aroma, and it’s great if you want to sprinkle over fresh fruit or on top of a dessert. A gentle flavour without being overpowering. Try that with vanilla extract! And should you find the pot is getting little empty, just pour in a little more sugar. Yup, that simple!

What’s are some of your favourite kitchen ingredients?

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Irish Soda Bread

You wake up, and realise several things. Firstly, there is no bread in the house. Second, you forgot to set the bread maker the night before. Third, in spite of your best efforts, you can’t find any bread or bagels in the freezer. What to do?

Clearly, it would be very, very easy to pop down to the shops and actually buy some bread, but there is an alternative – quick and easy Irish soda bread. Not sure about it? G’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan, g’wan!

Irish soda bread – as the name might suggest – does not rely on yeast, so there is no need to leave it for aaaaaaages to prove.

The secret is all the chemical-sounding stuff. You add baking soda, cream of tartar and buttermilk to the mixture, and these get jiggy together to produce the carbon dioxide necessary to make the loaf rise. In fact, things get, eh, “jiggy” as soon as you add the buttermilk, as its mild acidity starts the reaction. This means that you do need to work quickly – the reaction is on the go from the start, so you want just enough mixing to get everything combined, then whack the loaf onto a baking tray, let it stand for a moment, then slam into the oven.

This method of baking has its origins in the type of flour that was prevalent in Ireland a hundred or so years ago – not the strong bread flours that we have today for bread making, but softer types that worse less well with yeast. However, these flours work very well with the softer flour that was produced in Ireland. And Irish soda bread was born!

But that’s enough history for this early in the morning. You want to get your coffee on the go, and read the news on your laptop, feeling very pleased with yourself as the loaf bakes.

But there are many reasons why this is a great loaf. There is no kneading – just a quick mix, then shape roughly by hand. The rustic look actually adds to the charm. You want something that looks as if it came out of the oven of a little seaside cottage on the Irish coast. Another excellent thing about it is that it can be eaten while still warm. With yeast-leavened breads, they tend to have to cool down to be sliced properly. However, with its softer, more cake-like texture, Irish soda bread is utterly sublime cut into thick slices and spread generously with butter. It’s great with soups or cheese, but I like to add a large dollop of heather honey, and let the honey and butter melt into the bread. Perfect first thing in the morning scoffed down with a cuppa.

Now, while this bread is great fresh from the oven, it doesn’t keep very well. It’s good the day you make it, but the next day it sort of loses it. But no fear! Simply cut into slices and pop into the toaster – it is delicious! I’m not usually a big toast fan, but it really does wonders on this bread. Again, slather it with butter and honey for a great snack.

You’ve also got a bit of freedom in how to make this loaf. You can use just white flour, just wholemeal or a mixture of the two (I go for a mixture). If you like a but more texture, you can also add a handful of rolled jumbo oats. But if you’re going to be that healthy, make up for it with a decent slab of butter on top.

Finally, just one little note about the milk – you should use buttermilk if you can. You need the acidity of the buttermilk for the authentic taste and to get the reaction with the soda going. If you don’t have buttermilk, use normal milk which has been soured with a little lemon (see below in the recipe).

To make Irish soda bread:

• 150g white flour
• 300g wholemeal flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 teaspoons bicarbonate of soda
• 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
• 50g butter
• 300ml buttermilk(*)

Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F). Dust a baking sheet with plain flour.

Put everything except the butter and buttermilk into a bowl and mix well. Rub the butter into the flour mixture until there are no lumps of butter left.

Add the buttermilk, and mix quickly using your hands. Knead very lightly – stop as soon as you have a soft dough. Form a ball and put on the baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to make a cross on top of the loaf. Allow to sit for one minute, then put in the oven. Put a separate dish with water in the oven to create steam.

Bake for 30 minutes until the crust is golden. When done, remove from the oven. You can slice and eat the loaf while still warm.

(*) If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use regular milk. Bring the milk to the boil, then allow to cool. Add a teaspoon of lemon juice, and leave to stand for 5 minutes.

Worth making? Super easy and very, very tasty. This is the sort of bread that you want before you go for long walks on chilly days, or to set you up for a day of activities. It also makes a great way to mop up a thick, tasty vegetable soup.

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Maple-Glazed Pear Tart

Today’s post is a very simple but delicious dessert I whipped up recently while staying with friends in Brussels. And boy, do I mean simple.

For regular readers, this might look rather similar to something I posted last year using some luscious crimson Victoria plums. And you would be right! But this time, I replaced the plums with pears, and glazed it with maple syrup rather than honey. I went for maple syrup for no other reason than it was to hand, in a one-litre bottle. Yup, people really do buy it in those quantities, even in Europe.

So just how simple is this? Well, think about it element by element.

The pastry? Rich butter puff pastry…but we got that from a shop, and it was handily already rolled out into a thin disc. Result!

The filling? Ripe pears, just peeled, sliced and artfully arranged on the pastry.

And to finish? A mixture of butter, maple syrup and mixed spice(*), melted together and brushed over the tart. Then it was a light sprinkling with sugar, bake, and that’s it. All in all, this took about 15 minutes to make.

That would be, 15 minutes to make not including time for me to stab my hand with a sharp knife while chatting. I had just finished slicing the pears and arranging them on the tart, and then I genuinely have no idea how this happened. All I know is that it was quick, painful and dramatic. There was a shocked gasp from the next room. Are you alright? I was indeed alright, but the sympathy soon evaporated as the others realised that the tart was quite unaffected by all this, and I was dispatched to a kitchen stool with a glass of wine, instructing someone else to finish the tart. Lesson learned!

To serve, I would not produce this straight from the oven. Rather, either enjoy it while just warm, or at room temperature, with a generous dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Simple, but delicious and just a little bit classy.

(*) We used a Belgian spice mixture called speculaaskruiden (spek-oo-lass-krow-den) in Dutch or épices à spéculoos in French. It’s a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper. However, mixed spice or even Christmas Lebkuchengewürz can be used instead.

To make maple-glazed pear tart:

• 1 packet ready-rolled puff pastry (all butter) (approx. 200g)
• 5-6 ripe pears
• 25g butter
• 3 tablespoons maple syrup (or honey)
• pinch of mixed spice
• 1 tablespoon caster sugar, to sprinkle

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).

Place the pastry on a baking sheet. Use your fingers to crimp the edges.

Peel the pears. Cut into quarters, remove the seeds and core, plus any stalk fibres, then cut into slices. Arrange the slices in an overlapping and artistic pattern on the pastry, pushing them slightly into the pastry.

To make the glaze, put the butter, maple syrup and mixed spice in a saucepan. Heat until just melted, then brush it over the pears. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar.

Bake the tart for around 20 minutes until the pastry is golden at the edges and the pears are just browning (you might need longer, depending on your oven).

Worth making? This is one of the quickest, simplest desserts you can make, and it’s easy to do with things in the cupboard, fridge and the fruit bowl. It’s also easy to change depending on what you’ve got to hand.

 

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