Monthly Archives: October 2012

Dark Chocolate Spread

I made this amazing salted chocolate tart a few weeks ago (I can say it was amazing as, frankly, it was). It also got me thinking – could I adapt the filling to make a chocolate spread to enjoy in the morning? Because, you know, I’m greedy sometimes.

As it turns out, the answer to the question of “is it possible?” is a resounding “yes”. I went easy on the salt in this version, but otherwise it’s exactly the same ratios as used in the tart filling – equal weights of dark chocolate, muscovado sugar and double cream, heated until glossy, then poured into a jar and left to cool until the next morning.

So I made it, and had it the next day with breakfast. It really was truly delicious – spread on warm sourdough toast, and allowed to melt slightly. A pretty decadent way to start the day!

To make dark chocolate spread (makes 1 small jar):

• 120g dark chocolate
• 120g muscovado sugar
• 120ml double cream
• scant 1/2 teaspoon salt (or more or less, to taste)

1. Put the sugar, cream and salt in a bowl. Stir well until a lot of the sugar and salt are dissolved, then taste the mixture – add more salt if needed (but only if needed – it’s easy to add too much).

2. Add the chocolate, and place the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Heat, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thick and glossy.

3. Pour the mixture into a clean jam jar and store somewhere cool and dark until you are ready to eat it, most likely with a spoon!

Note: this will keep for 2-3 days in the fridge.

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Fig Jam

Have I told you that I have a fig tree in my garden? When I moved, I was very excited to see this large specimen that already had lots and lots of fruit, and a few figs that looked as if they were approaching ripeness. Ideas went though my head about figs fresh from the garden, baked figs, figs with cheese….you name it, I was going to make it.

As summer wore on (remember summer?) a few of them got very dark indeed, and a taste test confirmed they were indeed edible. The skin was a little tough, but the seeded red interior was delicious. I relaxed, and though that all they needed was a little time. I shooed away the greedy birds, and tried to bide my time.

After a few weeks, it seemed like I had a haul of figs and could make plans. I wasn’t sure they were the kind of figs that were good for eating (the skin was still a bit tough). But surely they would be fine for that old standby, jam? And who doesn’t like a good pot of fig jam? Dramatic colour, rich flavour and that funny little “pop” of those seeds…

Well, it turns out that the answer is “these figs are sort of okay for jam”. I chopped up the figs, added lots of sugar, boiled away, then tasted the jam. And there it was – that raw “green” flavour from the fig skins. All that hope and patience – all for nothing! Not one to give up on the culinary front, I worked quickly – the lot went through a sieve (so all the pulp and seeds were saved, the offending skins left behind) and a good pinch of cloves and a dash of port went in to boost the flavour. To this day, I am not entirely sure what I have actually managed to make, but I’ll let the jam mature for a while (so the flavour of the cloves can work its magic) and I’ll see what I’ve ended up with. I’m hopeful that the passage of time will be kind, and there is still a thrill of knowing that this jam is made from stuff from my own garden.

You might think that this would be enough to put me off making fig jam, at least for a little while, but of course that was not going to happen. Just after my first batch, ripe black figs started appearing in fruit shops, and I came across a recipe flavoured with rosemary and lemon zest. It looked too good to resist, and as you can see from the results below, I am glad I gave in to the urge.

From the moment I took the figs from the bag I could tell these were of a different class to those from my own garden. Mine were soft-ish, but these seemed almost ready to collapse, and the skin was a deep, silky purple.

This is a very easy way to make jam – the figs just need to be chopped up and cooked with a little water and some sugar. I’ve seen versions that involve either pureeing the figs to get a smooth paste, or pushing the lot through a sieve, but when the figs are properly ripe, this is not necessary. The strips of fig add some texture and I think make it look much more impressive when spread on a piece of bread.

I found the lemon and rosemary worked incredibly well here. The lemon provides just a little bit of freshness and sharpness to cut through the sweetness of the sugar. The rosemary contributes a little bit of fragrance to the jam – think of hot days in a warm climate, and figs and rosemary are two of the things that come to mind. In this case, I boiled a sprig of rosemary with the jam, and added one to each of the pots that I made. Again, I will let this sit for a while, so it will be interesting to find out how it has developed over time.

In the meantime – the other pot has been opened, and I can assure you that it tastes sublime in the morning on a croissant.

To make fig jam (makes 2 pots):

• 8 ripe black figs
• jam sugar with pectin (half the weight of the figs)
• 150ml water
• zest and juice of 1 lemon
• 1 sprig of rosemary

1. Start by sterilising some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.

2. Rinse the figs. Cut each in half, and slice roughly into thin strips.

3. Put all the ingredients into a saucepan, stir well, and slowly bring to the boil.

4. Reduce the heat and keep the jam on a rolling boil for 10 minutes. After this, start to check for a set every minute or so(**).

5. Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars (get the stick of rosemary into one of the jars), seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.

(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.

(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on the icy-cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jam wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.

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Scottish food: Cranachan

You know that Scotland is famous for whisky (spelled without the “e”), tablet, shortbread and smoked salmon. What you might not know is that it is also a very prolific producer of soft fruit. And in my view, the jewel in the crown among them is the raspberry. Let’s just pause for a moment to admire one of the little fellows:

If you are from certain parts of Scotland and of a certain age, there is a pretty good chance that you spent many a summer “at the berries” (i.e. being given little choice in the matter of going to a farm to pick raspberries). There is perhaps a certain romanticism attached to spending long, warm summer days in fields of fruit….

That’s more or less how I remember it, but that’s probably the rose-tinted view. I suspect the reality was more like standing at the muddy farm gates at 7am, and then spending most of the day rummaging around in bushes that are covered in lots and lots of little spikes, encountering lots of creepy-crawlies. At the end of the day, your hands would be stained red and, thanks to those tiny barbs, could be really quite itchy. But when you’re young, it seems that you have hit on a way of earning more money than you could possibly ever imagine. And that’s how I earned my first £100! I can still remember the sense of achievement that I had earned a three-figure sum! To this day, it serves as a reference point for the value of money – it was hours of physical work to earn it, and it made me a little more selective about how I spent it.

Anyway, moving past the misty-eyed recollections of summers past, with this abundance of lovely raspberries in Scotland, there are two tasty things you could make. Most obviously, you could make raspberry jam, which is peerless when enjoyed on fresh scones. If you want to make it, just put equal weights of raspberries and white sugar in a pot with a squeeze of lemon juice – bring to the boil, then simmer until set.

The less obvious thing to make is….to make a classic Scottish dessert called cranachan (complete with that harsh “ch” sound in the middle). If you’re looking for a reference point, you could call this a Scottish trifle, made with cream, oats and raspberries. Yes, oats. Trust me on this.

I’ve actually been hoping to post a cranachan recipe for a while, but I felt I should wait until I actually got my hands on some Scottish rasps. Not that there is anything wrong with the berries that come from Kent or Hampshire, but I just prefer the Scottish ones! However, my timing is less than perfect. I missed the main season what with moving house and the 2012 Games, and we’ve now slipped out of raspberry season here in the UK. However, I realise that there are parts of the world where these little fellows are just coming into season, so I reasoned that there would always be a good time to do this recipe. That, and by pure chance, I finally managed to get my hands on what must be the last punnets of fruit that came out of Scotland this year. It was a sign, clearly, that I had to feature cranachan!

This dessert is very simple – a combination of crushed raspberries, toasted oats, lightly whipped cream, heather honey and a dash of whisky. If you’ve made sure that the cream comes from happy cows that have been enjoying the lush green pastures of Aberdeenshire (or similar) then you’ve got a 100% Scottish dessert. It combines the sweet tartness of raspberries, nutty toasted oats that have a little bit of crunch to them, and lightly whipped cream that is flavoured with whisky and honey. Even with the oats, it’s a very luxurious dessert.

There are many different ways to make cranachan, and as I am not really in a position to say which is the authentic version, I’ll give you a few options and you can pick which you prefer. Some people throw everything in a bowl and mix,  others like to have distinct layers of cream, fruit, honey and oats. I prefer the “layers” approach and like to put it together at the last minute – the different textures make this a more interesting dessert. Also think about how long you will let the dessert sit – the longer you leave it to sit, the softer the oats will get and the stiffer the cream gets. I would assemble the dessert just before serving, so you can still appreciate the different textures.

And finally, I will deal with the obvious question – can you use yoghurt in place of the cream? I think you could, and while it won’t be the same, it will still be tasty. Just don’t try to play too fast and loose with the recipe by getting rid of the oats. Now that would be sacrilege!

To make Cranachan (serves 4):

• 60g oats (pinhead or jumbo rolled)(*)
• 300g fresh raspberries, plus more to decorate

• 300ml double cream
• 6 tablespoons honey, melted and cooled
• 6 tablespoons whisky

1. Dry-toast the oats in a frying pan over a medium heat. They are ready when the flakes are just browned and smell toasted, but should not be dark. Leave to cool.

2. In a bowl, lightly crush half the raspberries. Fold in the remaining whole raspberries and crush lightly – there should still be large whole pieces.

3. In another bowl, mix 3 tablespoons of honey with 3 tablespoons of whisky.

4. In another bowl, mix the cream and the rest of the honey and whisky. Whip until the cream thickens but is still soft. It should still be floppy, not stiff.

5. To assemble the dessert(**), add some of the raspberry mixture, then a sprinkling of oats and then some of the cream mixture. Add two more layers in the same order (raspberries, oats, cream, raspberries, oats, cream). Top with a few whole raspberries, and drizzle with the honey-whisky mixture. Serve immediately.

(*) Use as little or as much of the toasted oats as you prefer – you might want to go easy on the oats unless you’re a hardcore porridge fan.

(**) If you’re making this for a dinner, I recommend toasting the oats, making the whisky/honey mixture and toasting the oats ahead of time, but assemble everything at the very last moment. It’s also best not to keep the raspberries in the fridge, as they have a better flavour at room temperature.

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Salted Chocolate Tart

I was invited to a dinner last night, where the hostess was promising curry. Then came the casual request…and you can bring dessert, yes?

So I was up at 6:30am yesterday, reading some cookbooks for inspiration. My inclination was to start with something Indian, but I quite quickly realised that most of the recipes involved making some sort of paneer cheese and then frying it (yup, deep-fried desserts). I’ve bookmarked them to try another time, but I was left scratching my head nevertheless.

I had initially resisted the idea of something with chocolate as I was not too sure that it would be a good follow on from hot, spicy food, but then I came upon a recipe from the Paul A Young cookbook for a salted chocolate tart, topped with caramelised pecans. It looked like a winner, especially when I remembered that I had a tiny pot of edible gold leaf in the cupboard. I could make that, then top it off with gold leaf! And that’s basically the thought process that was going on in my head as I was drinking a cup of tea and finishing off toast with marmalade.

I made one large tart that I took along, and had enough extra pastry to make two small tartlets for later. Sadly I don’t have a picture of the big one, so you’ll have to be content with these two. I have to say, small as they are, they are still just about the richest thing I’ve made for a long, long time.

I really liked the way that this recipe turned out. The pastry is pretty easy, and the filling is a complete doddle – equal weights of chocolate, cream and muscovado sugar, then round out the flavour with some sea salt. Think salted caramel meets dark chocolate. As a flavour experiment, it was quite interesting to taste a spoonful of the cream and sugar mixture on its own (very sweet!) and then appreciate how much it changes once you add the salt. The flavour becomes so much deeper and richer.

However, my eyes did pop open when I saw how much salt was supposed to go into the mixture – I had made one-and-a-half times the filling, but still thought the suggested 10 grams was too much. I measured it out, and just didn’t trust it, and I didn’t have enough other ingredients to make another batch if the worst were to happen. I went with my gut, and added about two-thirds of the amount suggested, and the taste was great. So if you’re going to have a go at this tart, I recommend mixing the cream and sugar in a bowl, and add just enough salt to the cold mixture to suit your taste. There is a fine line between tongue-tingling salted caramel and a salty, sugary mess, and this is a recipe where less is more and you may wish to err on the side of caution.

So how was this tart received? The recipe book said it would silence a table of dinner guests, and it seemed to have the desired effect. This is definitely a keeper for the dessert portfolio, and I’m already planning to use the filling as the base of a tart to be topped off with fruit. I’m seeing great things involving passion fruit, or a few punnets of juicy ripe raspberries.

To make a salted chocolate tart:

For the pastry:

• 175g butter
• 75g caster sugar
• 2 egg yolks
• 35ml water
• 20g cocoa powder
• 250g plain flour

For the filling:

• 300g dark chocolate
• 300g light muscovado sugar
• 300ml double cream
• 1 heaped teaspoon sea salt (or more or less, to taste)

For the topping

• 100g nuts (pecans or skinned hazelnuts)
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 level teaspoon sea salt, finely ground

To make the pastry:

1. Cream the butter and sugar until soft. Add the egg yolks and water and combine. Add the cocoa and flour, a quarter at a time, and mix to a dough. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for an hour.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Roll out and use to line a 24cm loose-bottomed flan tin (no more than 5mm thickness). Place the pie crust in the freezer for 15 minutes.

3. Line the pie crust with greaseproof paper, and fill with baking beans. Bake the pie crust blind for 20 minutes, then remove the greaseproof paper and baking beans, and bake for another 8-10 minutes (the base should look dry and cooked, but the edges should not be dark). Leave to cool completely.

To make the filling:

4. Put the sugar and cream into a bowl. Stir well, then add salt to taste, then add the chocolate.

5. Place over a pan of very hot water, and allow everything to melt together. The mixture is ready when the chocolate has melted completely and the mixture looks thick and glossy.

6. Once ready, pour into the prepared tart shell, allow to cool slightly, then chill in the fridge for two hours.

To make the topping(*):

7. Lightly toast the nuts in the oven – they should be just toasted, not dark. Remove from the oven.

8. Put the sugar into a saucepan with a dash of water, and warm over a medium heat until you just have a light caramel. Don’t be tempted to stir it.

9. Once the caramel is done, add the salt, stir well, then add the nuts. Stir briefly, then turn out onto a sheet of non-stick baking parchment.

10. Leave the nuts to cool completely. Break or roughly chop the nuts into smaller pieces, and sprinkle generously on top of the tart.

(*) The topping can be made ahead of time – if you do this, be sure to store in an airtight container to stop the caramel from getting sticky.

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Sweet Potato Wedges

Autumn is now with us. The mornings might be bright, but there is that unmistakable crispness in the air that signals things are about to get a lot “fresher” in the coming weeks, and the evenings are getting dark very quickly. Sure, it might still feel warm if you’re in a sunny spot, but when you’re in the shade, or a breeze blows past, you feel just how nippy things are getting.

With the chaos of moving house almost at an end, I’ve finally been back in the kitchen. All of a sudden, my cooking has moved away from the salads of summer, and quick, light suppers, and into much more substantial fare. Lentil dishes with lots of spices, curries, baked squash, soups, fritters…it’s the time of year to batten down the hatches and do all you can to fend off the cold weather that is approaching. It’s not a conscious change on my part, but there are certain dishes the you just have a craving for as the seasons roll by. I have, however, resisted the urge to buy Christmas pudding, even if my local shop has decided that this is exactly what we want to eat in October.

In much of my cooking at this time of year, I use a lot of spices, and I take a heavy-handed approach. I somehow feel that lots of cumin, pepper, ginger, garlic and sambal will help to fight off the sniffles during the colder months. It might work, it might not, but it certainly makes things a lot more tasty. It’s also worth getting a little more creating in how you season things – one of my current favourites is ground allspice, which is very common in sweet treats like biscuits and gingerbread, but it adds an interesting dimension to savoury dishes too.

It was with all this in mind that I got round to trying something that was on my “to make” list for quite some time. I love sweet potatoes baked and topped with feta, so I expected great things when they were spiced and baked as wedges.

Pleasingly, these are very, very simple to make – nothing much more than peeled sweet potato, cut to size, then tossed in oil with some spices, and then baked. They also have the benefit of looking very impressive – a jolly autumnal bust of orange when freshly cut, turning a deeper colour after baking. They can also be prepared hours ahead of time and left in the spice mixture to marinade (if it is possible to marinade potatoes?), and make a great snack or side dish. However it is the spices that take these from so-so to wow-wow. The spices you use are completely up to you – I went with some personal favourites (allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin). A tasty little dish as the long nights draw in.

As you can see below, these wedges hold their shape rather nicely too after being baked in a hot oven.

To make sweet potato wedges:

• 2 large sweet potatoes
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• spices – select 5, and use 1/2 teaspoon of each(*)

1. Preheat the oven to 220°C (420°F).

2. Peel the potatoes. Cut lengthways into eight wedges, then slice each wedge diagonally (so each potato provides 16 pieces).

3. In a large bowl, combine the olive oil and spices. Mix well, then add the potato wedges.

4. Transfer the coated wedges to a tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 30-40 minutes until you can insert a knife easily, and the wedges are just stating to brown at the edges.

5. Serve immediately with the dip of your choice.(**)

(*) For the spices, I used allspice, paprika, curry powder, black pepper and cumin. And then I cheated and added some dried thyme too.

(**) I served these with a sprinkle of salt, and a dip made from tahini, yoghurt, sambal and lime juice.

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