11 November, 2013

Torrijas

Torrijas

I love torrijas — if I see them on a dessert menu in Spain, all the other options immediately become irrelevant. They are basically the same as what Americans call French toast, even though in France they are called pain perdu (lost bread); stale bread soaked in milk and egg and then fried. In this Spanish version they are fried in olive oil and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The perfect accompaniment is a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some butterscotch sauce.

They are so popular in some parts of Spain that bakers sell special pan para torrijas (torrija bread). This is a brioche-like loaf with quite a dense crumb that stands up well to being soaked in milk without falling apart. So a counsel of perfection is to use this, although failing that stale French baguette or any good white bread is fine (for heaven’s sake don’t try to use wrapped white sliced bread for this). If you do want to try the genuine article, I searched the web and eventually found a Spanish recipe for pan para torrijas, and adapted it for the bread machine — see below. I always make two loaves, cut them in half, and freeze them. Once thawed, I leave them to go stale — the staler the better, you can leave this bread hanging around for a couple of days. It makes good toast too.
Recipe for Torrijas »

11 November, 2013

Salted caramel sauce (caramel au fleur de sel)

Salted caramel sauce

Many competent cooks seem to be terrified of making caramel. Why? It’s a doddle. There are only two things that can go wrong: burning it (due to inattention) and crystallising the sugar. The first problem is easily solved: don’t take your eyes off the caramel while it is cooking, and remove from the heat as soon as it is the right colour. As for the second problem, I discovered long ago that using sugar cubes instead of granulated sugar ensures that the sugar will melt smoothly and evenly without crystals forming. So give it a go! This sauce is excellent with ice cream, but useful for all sorts of other things as well — try it with apple slices fried in butter for example.
Recipe for Salted caramel sauce (caramel au fleur de sel) »

20 January, 2013

English apple pie

English apple pie

It must be over a decade since I last made an apple pie. Since I became French, my default option for apples and pastry is sinfully easy Tarte Tatin. Or occasionally, if I have time, a classic tarte aux pommes. But today I suddenly felt the urge to make an old-fashioned apple pie. I had to dredge long-unvisited corners of my memory for the little tweaks I developed in the years when I made it regularly. Painting the pastry with egg white to stop it going soggy. Mixing a little cornflour in with the sugar to thicken the juices, making it easier to serve cold. Adding a few sultanas. And above all, hiding bits of quince among the apples to perfume the pie and turn the filling a rosy pink. In fact it must have been the quince in the fruit bowl that gave me the idea in the first place.
Recipe for English apple pie »

26 August, 2012

Fudgy chocolate brownies

The web is awash with recipes claiming to be “the best brownies ever”. I make no such claim for this recipe; they are extremely good, but tastes differ, and anyway the success of brownies depends above all on not overcooking them, whatever recipe you use.

No, what struck me about this recipe above all was that there is no chocolate in them! Don’t get me wrong: they are chocolate brownies, but they are made with cocoa, not slabs of dark chocolate. This is great for me, because whenever I buy chocolate to cook with, I put it in the cupboard, and when I come to use it a few days later, it has mysteriously disappeared, leaving only a crinkle of silver foil to mark its passing. Whereas the box of Dutch-process cocoa stays in place for months on end.

I found the recipe on Apple and Spice; the original is by Alice Medrich. If you can keep your hands off them long enough, these keep really well in a tin, and I’ve even sent some unharmed via international post!
Recipe for Fudgy chocolate brownies »

2 June, 2012

Lemon posset

Lemon posset with cherry compote

I’m a sucker for anything with lemon in it — it’s my favourite flavour. Lemon posset is utterly simple: just lemon, sugar, cream. It’s rather indulgent, so make small quantities and pair it with something more virtuous; I added hot cherry compote to the chilled possets, so that made them part of our five a day. Choose plain glasses to show off the pale, creamy possets, and serve with crisp biscuits, such as tuiles, langues de chat, or Maggie’s shortbread thins.

Ideally, make it 24 hours ahead, but I’ve chilled it for only four hours, and it’s still set, if less firmly.
Recipe for Lemon posset »

29 January, 2012

A Feast of Flavours by Annie Bell: cookbook review and recipe

Cardamom rice with prunes

I’m continuing my trawl through the reserve collection.This claims to be a “vegetarian” cookbook, although a few of the recipes include fish or shellfish. It is definitely not the 70s/early 80s style of vegetarian cooking with lots of wholewheat stodge and mushy lentils. Like Nadine Abensur’s, Annie Bell’s dishes are creative and elegant, letting the flavours of fresh vegetables shine. This book is clearly geared towards entertaining, as it’s organised as a series of seasonal menus, most involving five or six dishes.

Not that this is a criticism. Her philosophy of vegetarian cooking is that rather than having a “main” ingredient (a chunk of protein) and some side dishes, a meal can be composed of a harmonious selection of smaller dishes. It’s a philosophy I like, even though it’s more work, so is likely to happen only on special occasions.

I haven’t cooked any complete menu from this book, but I have bookmarked a number of recipes. Actually, in true neglected cookbook style I hadn’t cooked anything at all from it till today, when I decided to try the cardamom rice with prunes.

Rice pudding and stewed prunes … hmm, sounds like British canteen fare. Happily, it is not. I’ve always liked rice pudding, although I do normally prefer to eat it hot, with jam or maple syrup. The cardamom makes this version decidedly un-English. The prunes are not an unappetising brown mush, but whole pruneaux d’Agen simmered in an Armagnac-laced syrup with cinnamon and vanilla. If I’d done the whole menu, I would also have served spaghetti marrow and vermicelli with watercress cream, cannelloni omelettes filled with spinach and gruyère, with a tomato sauce aux fines herbes, and a green salad with avocado and toasted walnuts. You can tell she used to run a restaurant.

Anyway, here’s my version of the rice. It turned out a bit runny, and over-sweet to my taste, so I’ve adjusted the quantities slightly to reflect this. It was very nice cold, with the prunes making an attractive colour contrast. And of course it can all be prepared hours in advance — fortunately, since the rest of the menu seems to involve an awful lot of last-minute frying, pasta cooking, and salad dressing. The recipe seems long, but really it’s very simple and not time-consuming. I’ll definitely keep this book because even if the complete menus are too much work there are a lot of small, stylish dishes. It’s out of print — so if you want to give it a try you can buy it for a penny on Amazon!
Recipe for A Feast of Flavours by Annie Bell: cookbook review and recipe »

26 December, 2011

Three good things to do with mincemeat

I made my mincemeat this year according to Delia’s recipe, adapted to local circumstances (mine included chopped dried figs and apricots, and dried cranberries, as well as glacé cherries, raisins and sultanas). I used most of the first jar to make some common-or-garden mince pies, but was not satisfied with the results, so I hunted around for alternatives. Here are three other ways of using mincemeat.

1. The simplest: mincemeat palmiers

Buy a block of ready-made puff pastry and roll it out thinly into an oblong. Spread thinly all over with mincemeat, then starting from a short side, roll up the pastry like a Swiss roll. Cut into slices about 2 cm thick, and lay them on a non-stick baking tray (or a tray lined with silicone/baking parchment). Put in the fridge for half an hour or so.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the tray in and cook for about 10 minutes, till the pastry is golden. Remove and cool to lukewarm before sprinkling with icing sugar and serving. This is a great and easy alternative to conventional mince pies.

2. Classic and luxurious: almond paste mince pies

I used this recipe; I don’t know why it’s called “almond paste” because there are no almonds in it, only almond essence. I was very pleased with these; the pastry was crisp and golden, and the “almond” paste makes for a lighter topping than pastry. Delicious. I didn’t have a piping bag so I just rolled the paste into small balls, flattened them and placed them on top of the mincemeat. So they looked a lot less elegant, but still tasted good. If, or rather when, I make these again, I’ll substitute ground almonds for some of the flour in the paste though!

3. Comfort food: Eliza Acton’s mincemeat pudding

I loved this; it was my favourite of the three, although it’s a pudding rather than a teatime treat. I’d happily eat it instead of Christmas pudding. It’s basically bread and butter pudding with mincemeat in it. I found the recipe in Elizabeth David’s Christmas; the original is from Eliza Acton‘s Modern Cookery, and is labelled “Author’s Receipt”.
Recipe for Three good things to do with mincemeat »

22 August, 2011

Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart

Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart

I never cease to be inspired by apricots, one of my favourite fruits for cooking with. This tart has many of the same ingredients as apricot frangipane tart, but with quite different results — and it’s much quicker to make. It’s based on the very English Bakewell tart, but the usual raspberry or strawberry jam is replaced with an apricot compote flavoured with vanilla and rosemary. I venture to suggest that the result is better than the original; apricot and almond are a classic pairing, and the sharp, intense flavour of the apricot layer contrasts well with the light, spongy topping. You can serve this lukewarm as a pudding, with a dollop of crème fraîche, a pool of custard, or simply some pouring cream. Or when cold, serve as a cake with tea.

The recipe makes much more compote than you need, but this is no hardship; store it in the fridge and serve folded through Greek yoghurt, with ice cream and crisp almond biscuits, as a layer in an apricot trifle, or as a cheesecake topping.
Recipe for Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart »

6 March, 2011

Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton

The Best of Eliza Acton

It was Eliza who inspired me to try the vintage feast idea in the first place, so I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. The official “challenge” is over, but I like these old cookbooks so much that I have decided to continue an occasional series.

The book I have is an old Penguin, The Best of Eliza Acton, published in 1968, edited by Elizabeth Ray and with a foreword by … who else? Elizabeth David. You can’t read much Elizabeth David without discovering that she and Eliza are kindred spirits. Jane Grigson drew on Acton heavily for her English Food, and both she and David clearly thought more highly of Eliza than of the better-known Mrs Beeton.

Modern Cookery for Private Families was published in 1845, when Eliza was 46, and stayed in print for over 50 years. This 350-page paperback holds only a fraction of the hundreds of brief, precise recipes the original book must have contained. Her crisp prose, sharp asides, and succinct instructions that assume the reader is already a competent cook cannot fail to recall Elizabeth David, so it’s hardly surprising the latter admired her so much : “Over and over again,” she writes, “I have marvelled at the illuminating and decisive qualities of Miss Acton’s recipes.” Discussing the fact that Acton was eclipsed by later inferior writers, David suggests that it was because she was “a child of the eighteenth century …. living in the manner and writing of a style of English domestic life already doomed.” And she concludes, “Temporary eclipse has often been the fate of great innovators. In a way it is posterity’s compliment to genius.” And similarly, when the Jamies and Nigellas of this world have been and gone, Elizabeth David will still be with us.

So after all that, what about the food? I was spoilt for choice here. All sorts of things tempted me: fried potato ribbons, which sound very much like rather fantastical potato crisps, cut in long spirals; jumbles; cheesecake with no cheese in it; the famous cabinet pudding. In the end I went for a very simple menu.

To start: carrot soup. Eliza has two basic recipes for this, but follows them with a recipe for a variation: “Buchanan carrot soup (Excellent)”. With that recommendation, how could I not try it? It was delicious, deep orange with a zing from the curry powder, making it much more successful than Ruth Lowinsky’s bland 20th-century version. My only criticism was that I don’t particularly like the texture of cooked rice in my soup; when I reheated the leftovers for lunch, I liquidised it. Next up: Chicken Burdwan, which with a few adjustments could well become a regular standby for using up leftover roast chicken, and is an “Indian” dish that would certainly appeal to French people. It’s a feast of 18th-century flavours.

For dessert, I found the potato pudding irresistible. Years ago we were served a dessert of tiny dishes of impossibly smooth potato puree flavoured with vanilla at my then-favourite restaurant, Les Feuillants in Céret (sadly now gone). It was fantastic, and potatoes are my favourite vegetable, so I was certainly prepared to try another potato dessert. Of course it was nothing like that creamy dish at les Feuillants, but it did seem strangely familiar. After a couple of spoonfuls I realised it was very like the bottom part of a Queen of Puddings. So next time I want to make Q of P and don’t have any stale bread, I might use potatoes instead.

All of these were dishes I’d happily make again, so this is the best vintage feast so far. My adapted recipes for all three follow.
Recipe for Vintage Feasts: Eliza Acton »

5 March, 2011

Candied clementine cake

Somehow from Christmas onwards, our fruit bowl seemed to be permanently full of clementines. At one point I found myself with a 2-kg sack of remarkably tasteless ones. What to do? I remembered Claudia Roden’s famous Middle-Eastern boiled orange and almond cake; maybe that would do the trick? Googling around I found many references to it, including Jill Dupleix’s version. I tried it with a few of the clementines but wasn’t very impressed. It was heavy despite the whisked egg whites, and not very tasty (clementines no doubt to blame for that). Darn, six eggs used on that.

More googling, and I hit upon Vegan Yum-Yum’s version. Aha, no eggs! I tried it and was really pleased with the result (and so were the choir members who got to taste it).

It was a bit soggy, and I messed up the frosting by cooking it too long, but candying the clementines gave it a really marmaladey flavour which I liked a lot. You can serve it for tea or as a dessert — skip the frosting and add a dollop of Greek yoghurt or crème fraîche. I’ve made it twice since then; it freezes well too. You do have to plan in advance to cook the clementines, but they’ll keep in the fridge for up to a week, or you can freeze them. Use the remaining syrup to make champagne cocktails (or just top up with sparkling water).
Recipe for Candied clementine cake »

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