Monthly Archives: September 2013

Polenta Chips

Yay, Autumn is well and truly here! On the plus side, there its lots of fruit about for jamming (more of which soon), but then there have also been endless conversations with friends and colleagues about whether the weather means it is time to put on the heating. This is rather ridiculous, given we were all sweltering in a heatwave a few weeks ago. Personally, I’m going to maintain an iron will and shall refuse to touch the radiators until the first of October. Even then, I’ll hold out for as long as the cats can stand it!

The change in temperature has, however, given me the perfect opportunity to try some of the more, ahm, “robust” recipe ideas that I have on my try-at-some-point list, which tend to be those that are made from lots of wheat, potatoes or corn (or some combination of all three). This is just one of those recipes. For these are chips (or fries if you must) but made from polenta rather than potatoes. And you know what? The end product actually looks like a pretty good substitute for their potato-based cousins! Golden and crisp!

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I first remember eating these style of chips years ago, but they were more like deep-fried bars of polenta and a bit of a novelty in posher pubs. Then, more recently, this dish has started to pop up again, but in the guise of thin, match-stick style bars of golden deliciousness, and infused with all manner of herbs and spices and served with a variety of sauces for dipping (and I’ve enjoyed them with everything from tasty mayonnaise to rather dubious overly-sweet fruity chutneys).

So, how hard could it be to make them at home? I mean, it’s just sweetcorn, right? As it turns out, these chips are actually incredibly simple. Super-simple. You just make a batch of polenta, leave it to set in a tray, then slice into fingers and bake in the oven. That’s it.

For the polenta mixture, it was just a case of mixing the polenta meal, vegetable stock, chili paste and herbs, plus a dash of olive oil (the olive oil is essential, so that they crisp up when you bake them later). This really allows you to go to town on flavours. While I used herbes de provence you could just as easily go for paprika, spiced such as cumin or curry powder, or even cheese. The only thing to keen an eye on is the level of salt, either on its own or from the stock used to make the polenta. As the baking process will drive a lot of moisture from the polenta, the flavour will become more concentrated, so you should aim to slightly under-season the mixture. And hey, these things are chips – if you need to add more salt, just sprinkle it on them at the end. Even at that stage you can get creative, grinding fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme with salt to add some extra flavour. OK, clearly we’re dangerously close to gastro-pub territory here…

Now, I would love to be able to tell you that I made these flawlessly first time. But…when it came to baking these bad boys, I had to go up a bit of a learning curve. I thought I would be really smart and spread them out on greaseproof paper that was coated in a little olive oil. No sticking here, I thought! However, I had completely failed to think about the fact that during baking, there would be a lot of water driven out of the polenta. The result? The chips got rather stuck to the paper, and said paper started to fall apart thanks to all that steam.

Having removed the tray from the oven, separated the chips and the paper (the oil did its job in the end), then lined the tray with a drizzle of olive oil and put the whole lot back into the oven, things then proceeded perfectly. I was impressed that, given just how little oil was involved, the chips went from the pale yellow of the polenta to a rich, toasted shade of gold and acquired a good, crisp snap and decent crunch. They were just delicious served up with mayonnaise, beer and not much else.

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I’ve raved about how easy these chips are to make…so how to they taste? I was pretty much blown away by the end result. The heat from the chili and the herbs is still there, but what had been essentially soft sticks of creamed corn had been transformed into something crisp and with a toasted, almost nutty flavour. The flavour was not unlike those giant fried corn seeds you get in tapas bars, and very more-ish.

These chips make a great alternative to “normal” chips with dinner, and have the bonus of remaining very crisp even as the cool. In fact, you can happily leave them to cool down completely, and then serve them as a snack with drinks. And, given I’m going through a rather busy patch at work, you can even (dare I say it) reheat them rather successfully the next day. All that – from corn!

To make polenta chips (serves 2, or 1 if being greedy…)

• 150g polenta meal
• 600ml water
• vegetable stock
• 2 teaspoons dried herbs
• chili paste, to taste
• 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for the baking tray

1. Cook the polenta according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In my case – bring the water to the boil, then add the polenta (stirring all the time), add the rest of the ingredients and cook over a very low heat until the grains are soft.

2. In the meantime, line a tray with cling film. Pour the cooked polenta into the tray, then smooth the top (use the back of an oiled spoon) and cover with more cling film. Leave until completely cold and firm – overnight is fine.

3. Preheat the oven to 220°C (425°F). Drizzle a baking tray with a little olive oil.

4. Remove the slab of polenta from the cling film, and use a sharp knife to cut into chips (thin sticks, fat chips, crinkle-cut…). Spread the chips on the baking tray, and pop into the oven to bake for 40-45 minutes until crisp and golden. You may need to remove them from the oven from time to time to shake them up and get an even colour.

Worth making? These chips are amazing. Super-crisp and packed with flavour. If potato allergy were a thing, then these would be your saviour!

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Swedish Pancakes

When it comes to Scandinavian food, it’s all to easy to fawn over the cool aesthetic of places like Noma or think that it’s all about cinnamon buns. However, something that I really like is one of the simplest things you can make – straightforward Swedish pancakes, served the merest dusting of icing sugar and topped with lingonberry jam.

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These are made with one of those handy-to-remember recipes, based on a ratio of 2-3-6. That’s 2 decilitres of flour, 3 eggs and 6 decilitres of milk. Yes, the decilitre. Odd, huh? This is something that you come across fairly rapidly if you dare to venture into Swedish cooking, but it does at first prompt a little confusion if you’re not used to it. It’s equivalent to 100ml, but as you might have worked out by now, I’ve got a bit of an aversion to volumes-based measurements. I’ll happily measure our liquids in a jug, but when it comes to dry ingredients, I always go with my natty set of digital scales. If you’ve never tried, you really need to get a set! So much easier for getting precise quantities. Never again do you need to worry about whether flour needs to be compacted or not before adding to batter…anyway…

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These pancakes are similar to crepes. The batter is very thin (you would think that the flour is not enough for all that milk, but it is!), so when you add the batter to the frying pan, you need to make sure you quickly spread the batter to get them thin and round. When it comes to flipping, you need to be quite confident with these little fellows. If you use a non-stick pan, then the butter in the batter will stop them from sticking. It’s then just a case of shaking the pan to loosen the pancake, and then you need to flip them with a firm, confident motion. Do it this way, and the pancake with do a mid-air somersault that should impress onlookers. However, if you lose your nerve, then you’ll end up with a pancake that folds itself in half and sticks into a big, doughy mass. Be confident!

The lack of sugar in the batter also means that these pancakes work equally well with savoury or sweet flavours. If you’re trying the keep with the Swedish theme, I’d add some cheese or mushrooms. Otherwise, jam is a favourite, with lingonberry being the classic.

Now, you may or may now know that I am a bit of a compulsive collector of all manner of edible berries. I subscribe to the school of thought that says you should never pick things that you are not completely sure of, so if you’re going to don your country finest and go foraging for berries this weekend, just stick with what you know.

Anyway, I was on a trip to Finland and managed to come away with a decent amount of lingonberries from the forest to the west of Helsinki. They made it back to London, and have been hidden in the back of the freezer for a while now. I thought they would be perfect with these pancakes – I just popped the berries into a saucepan, added some water and a little sugar (one quarter of the weight of the berries) and within minutes, I had a simple lingonberry compote. If you’re not familiar with the flavour, it’s sweet and tart, but less sharp than cranberries, and it’s great on top of pancakes. If you’re in Sweden, you’ll even find the stuff served with meat and potatoes. Sadly it was too much like jam for me to think of it as something to eat with savoury dishes!

These are great for breakfast – I make the batter the night before, so you can whip up a batch first thing in the morning.

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To make Swedish Pancakes (makes 16):

• 200 ml (100g) plain flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 600ml milk
• 3 eggs
• 3 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

1. In a bowl, mix the flour and salt with half the milk until smooth. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, and beat well. Leave to sit for 30 minutes (or overnight in the fridge).

2. Add the melted butter to the batter in a thin stream, stirring constantly.

3. Heat a non-stick frying pan on a medium heat. Add enough batter to make a think pancake, tilting the pan to make sure the batter is evenly spread. Cook until set, then shake to loosen the pancake. Flip and cook the other side.

Worth making? Of course. Who doesn’t like pancakes?

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Almond Biscuits

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys making things that use a lot of egg yolks (custard! ice-cream! mayonnaise!) then you’ll know the problem you can face with a bowl of egg whites. I faced just this predicament after making some raspberry tarts with a vanilla custard filling. I always think it’s incredibly wasteful to throw them away, so it’s useful to have a few recipes up your sleeve that you can whip us with things you have in the cupboard, and these tasty little almond biscuits tick that box.

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These biscuits are essentially like simple Italian amaretti, round little domes with a nice crisp/chewy shell on the outside, with a little crunch and sparkle from caster sugar, but a soft marzipan-like filling. The name actually translates as “small bitter things” but I assume that refers more to the almond flavour than their temperament. They would be similar to what Italians call amaretti morbidi, a name that I always find rather sinister. I know it means soft amaretti, but I always translate morbido in my head as morbid (a false friend). I mean…a morbid biscuit…really? I think the results are about as far from that as possible – a lovely light golden colour and those jaunty, random cracks on the surface. They might not look perfect, but I think that adds to their charm.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to almonds with a pronounced flavour, they use those, but to make sure you get a proper almond flavour, it’s fair to cheat a little and add a dash of almond extract. I know some people get a little sniffy about this, but I think it really makes a difference, and takes them from just being sweet and chewy to proper little almond bites.

You’ll see that this recipe uses a little flour – I find this helps to bind the mixture, but I’ve made them using both normal plain flour as well as a gluten-free flour mixture. Both were equally successful, so these treats can easily be made gluten-free. It’s also the use of flour that means I haven’t called these amaretti. Don’t want to offend Italian grannies and all that.

How to enjoy them? They can be kept for a few days, but I think they are perfect with coffee, and you’ll probably struggle to stop at one.

To make almond biscuits (makes 24):

• 2 large egg whites
• 230g ground almonds
• 230g caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 3 tablespoons plain flour
• extra caster sugar to sprinkle

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and rub lightly with oil.

2. In a bowl, whip the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Add 200g of each of the almonds and sugar, plus the almond extract and the flour. Mix well. Add the rest of the sugar and almonds only if needed – the mixture should be firm and not be wet, but still soft enough to shape using teaspoons.

3. Take teaspoons of the mixture and form into rough balls. Using damp hands, roll into smooth spheres (you’ll probably have to rinse your hands after four cookies), place on the baking tray a few centimetres apart, and flatten slightly. Sprinkle with caster sugar.

4. Bake the biscuits for around 15 minutes until lightly golden (they will be paler in the centre). Turn the tray around half-way during baking to get an even colour.

Worth making? Definitely. The mixture is quick and easy to make, so easy to whip up when you’ve got a spare half an hour. And delicious too!

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Give it a whirl…

Okay, I realise that there has been a bit of an unexpected blogging hiatus. I was getting so good at posting with something that could be said to approach regularity. Then I went and mucked it all up by taking some time off and going to explore the lovely scenery of the Peak District national park. Long and bracing outdoor walks, charming country pubs, pretty villages and spectacular stately homes. Great to escape the big smoke and disconnect (and I mean really disconnect – almost no mobile phone coverage during the day, so no surfing the internet on an iPhone in the middle of a forest or on top of a hill…and that’s a good thing!). Of course, also less great for regular posts, so time to resume normal service.

Anyway, just as I’m back in town, I’m delighted to find that the Great British Bake-Off is back on our screens. We can experience the week by week baking trials and tribulations of an intrepid group of bakers as they take on breads, pies, biscuits and cakes, all the while seeking to deliver a “good bake” while avoiding the dreaded soggy bottom.

In honour of what is frankly my favourite TV show, today I’m going to get a little bit retro with a classic British biscuit. These are called Viennese Whirls, and are made from two very buttery shortbread biscuits filled with raspberry jam and vanilla buttercream. While these little babies look very fancy, I’m not too sure that they would make it as a technical challenge – they are fairly easy to do well, so the judges might be faced with tray after tray of perfect cookies.

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If you are British and of a certain age, you’ll be quite familiar with Viennese whirls, most likely the Mr Kipling variety. If so, I really recommend having a go at making them – they taste, on the one hand, just like you remember them, but as you’ve made them yourself, they also taste so much better than what you can buy. They are also fun to serve guests – you can fully expect to get gasps of excitement when you present them alongside a cup of tea.

Now…I think I have to burst the bubble here. In spite of the name of these fancy biscuits, I’m not too sure that they have anything to do with either Vienna or Austria more generally. A quick search on the web does not make even a vague attempt to explain their origin. The only theory I can put forward is that when these biscuits were created, they were seen as sufficiently fancy to be biscuits fit to serve in the smart grand cafés of Vienna. Maybe the swirling of the biscuits recalls gentlemen and ladies whirling around at those famous Viennese Balls?

These are quite a fun biscuit to make – yes, it involves piping the mixture, but it’s quite easy to have a few practice shots (just scrape any less than perfect biscuits back into the piping bag and keep going), and the effect looks really good. They also taste quite decadent – the biscuits are very buttery, and using cornflour in the mixture makes them extra-short and crumbly, which goes fantastically well with the rich buttercream filling and fruity raspberry jam.

I liked the look of these Viennese whirls as they are, but it is traditional to dust them with icing sugar – this will help to highlight the shape of the biscuits and showcase your piping skills to maximum effect. But dusted or au naturel they look very elegant on a plate served with tea, and perfect for a quite moment on the sofa with a good book.

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To make Viennese Whirls (makes around 20):

For the biscuits:

• 250g salted butter
• 50g icing sugar
• 250g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 1-2 teaspoons milk (if needed)

For the filling

 • 100g butter
• 200g icing sugar
• ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g raspberry jam
• icing sugar, to dust (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. In a large bowl, mix the butter, icing sugar, flour and cornflour until smooth. You should have a very soft dough – if need be, add a teaspoon or two of milk.

3. Transfer the dough to a piping bag fitted with a large star-shaped nozzle. Pipe out rosettes, leaving a decent gap between them, aiming for around 40.

4. Bake the biscuits for 12-15 minutes until they are a light golden colour (you may need to turn the baking tray half-way through to get an even colour). Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

5. Next, prepare the jam. Warm it in a saucepan until just boiling, then pass through a sieve to remove the seeds. Discard the seeds, and leave the sieved jam to cool until thick.

6. Make the filling – beat the butter, icing sugar and vanilla until smooth and pale. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a large star-shaped nozzle.

7. Assemble the Viennese whirls – take one biscuit as a base, add some jam, then pipe a generous amount of filling. Top with another biscuit. Do the same until all the biscuits have been used (you might have some jam and buttercream left over).

8. Arrange on a plate to serve, dusting with icing sugar if desired.

Worth making? These are actually very easy to make and the result looks super. The flavour is also excellent – but be sure the use salted butter for the biscuits themselves, as this provides a better flavour. And don’t skimp on the filling – it should squish out as you bite into them!

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