Sunday, 18 April 2010

That's what little boys are made of ...

Not all those ghastly things like puppy-dog tails, give 'em a chance and it'll be spice cake and other things nice. Karen kind of beat me to the gun on this one, as I promise I really did have it in mind to put up the recipe I use for pain d'épices, and out of sheer spite (I can be very petty) I'm going to do it anyway. And as I was up in Beaujolais on Saturday, delivering sewing tables to Margo and, incidentally, buying a few bottles of wine, I didn't actually have the occasion to head off for brunch with Sophie so I could not, in all honesty, tell you about that instead even if I weren't being bitchy.

So here goes with Gaston Lenôtre's pain d'épices gâtinais. The gâtinais is a region of France (extreme northern end of Burgundy, unless I'm mistaken - you can always check it up on Wikifibs if you want to) which is - at least within its borders - renowned for its honey. Which is a major ingredient in this cake. So go get some, I'll wait.

Whatever, you are going to need the following:
  • 200gm honey
  • 125gm sugar
  • 80 gm butter
  • 20cl water
  • peel of 1 lemon and 1 orange
  • 2tsp anis seeds
  • 50gm slivered almonds
  • 280gm flour (plain or rye, it's up to you)
  • 2tbsp baking powder
If you have problems getting hold of anis seeds, you could always try grinding up some star anise in a spice grinder (I use the little Braun electric coffee grinder we bought yonks back, when we still used to buy coffee beans; these days it's reserved for spices and does a really good job): it should make a good substitute.

You'll also need a square cake tin, which you should carefully line with parchment paper. If you don't you may have a few problems getting the cake out in one piece, which would be a shame now, wouldn't it?

Anyway, the first thing you need to do is melt the butter, honey and sugar with the water: in a saucepan if you really insist but I can't see any reason not to give it a quick zap in the microwave. Now mix the flour and baking powder in a bowl and slowly beat in the liquid: when that's all incorporated, add the finely chopped peels, the almonds and the anis, and beat all that in as well until well mixed. Especially if you're using rye flour, you may need to add more: the dough shouldn't be too disgustingly runny.

Now pour the lot into the lined tin and stick it in the oven at 200°C for half an hour, then lower the temperature to 175° and let it cook for up to another hour. Watch it: if it starts looking as though it's going to go too brown, stick a sheet of tinfoil over the top.

Remove when cooked and let it cool in the tin overnight, then turn it out and either eat it or, if you have any self-control at all, wrap it in tinfoil and let it sit in the fridge for two or three days: the flavours mix and improve with time, and it also settles and is easier to cut. It's true, I promise. Sliced and buttered, it makes a lovely breakfast: alternatively, you could pair it with some fig jam and a slice of foie gras pôelé for an entrée.

But right now I'm going to don the Armour of Righteousness and the Cod-piece of Profusion, fire up the lawnmower and do battle with the green stuff in the paddock. Wish me luck.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Pain d'épices - Spice bread

Last weekend hubby and I kissed the kids and grandma goodbye and drove off for a weekend in Burgundy. As you know, Burgundy is one of those regions reknown even in France for its gastronomie. In English this translates to excellent wine, cuisine & of course it's trademark condiment, mustard. We stayed in a lovely chambre d'hõtes (fancy B&B), called La Cure, run by a charming couple, Aline and Daniel. This blog is not the place to give a review of the place, suffice to say we recommend it highly to anyone traveling through Burgundy. Travelers (whether of the mind or body) may click on the link I've helpfully provided to virtually visit their web site. Tell them Karen sent you, as we became quite friendly in a few days as their generous offers of apéritif every night, not to mention the breakfasts, clinched our natural affinities. Aline is a woman of my own heart. Her breakfasts are illustrated above: homemade jams, breads, cakes, yogurt.... Of course, foodies being what they are, we spent the breakfast hour swapping recipes. Aline graciously gave me her spice cake or pain d'épices recipe, a favorite of my youngest step-daughter, which I'm sharing with you (translated from the French). All compliments must go to Aline!

Tips: Aline confessed to me she zaps the butter in the microwave & mixes all the ingredients together at the same time. Like I said, a woman of my own heart!
The recipe makes 2 mid-size loaves. Properly sealed in foil or wax paper, these last easily several days, if for some reason their not devoured immediately.

600g flour
300g brown or unrefined sugar
300g honey
2 eggs
250 ml milk
2 tsps baking soda
2 tsps baking powder
2 tsps cinnamon
2 tsps ginger
2 tsps four spices mix (quatre épices)
60g butter

Preheat oven to high-medium heat.
Melt butter.
Mix butter and remaining ingredients until smooth.
Pour into lined bread or cake pans.
Bake 45 to 60 minutes, until golden & firm.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Once more unto the pig, dear friends ...

As usual, lunch with Sophie again: I decided to have another go at my mille-feuille au trois fromages again (just to make sure that it was as good as I thought) and, somewhat to my surprise, it was. Provided you like cheese, anyway. It's a simple but relatively elegant dish which doesn't take much time, and the only exotic ingredient is the batusson. I suppose you could use cottage cheese beaten up with herbs to replace that, but as cottage cheese is rather exotic around here I can't say with any certainty.

In any case, all you need to do is stack up some phyllo sheets: paint one with melted butter, sprinkle with paprika, herbes de Provence and a bit of gros sel, put another sheet on top of that and repeat the performance ... four or five sheets should do the trick. Cut this into three rectangles and pop them into a hot oven for about ten minutes, until they go nicely crispy. While that's going on, chop a small red bell pepper and fry that up in butter till it goes soft, then stir it into about 200gm of batusson.

And when the pastry's ready, put one rectangle onto a serving dish (one that can go into the oven, please) and carefully spread the batusson over it: put the second sheet on top and cover with sliced mozzarella, then put the last sheet on top of that and sprinkle liberally with parmesan and a bit more paprika. Put the whole thing back in the oven for five or ten minutes to heat everything through before taking it out and eating it. It is a bit rich: makes a good light lunch in itself, or a flash entrée for dinner.

Anyway, I promised you filet de porc normande, amongst other things, so here goes.

First of all, a warning: you will need some white wine for this one, so get a couple of bottles in just to be sure. It also does need to be flambé, so make sure you have some calva to hand - or failing that, some whisky. Good stuff, not the bottle you keep for uninvited guests.

To begin, you'll need a pork fillet or two. Around 700 gm should be fine for four. Now take a sharp knife (is there any other kind?) and pare off all the sinew and any fatty bits around the meat. There's what's called the "chain", which is a very thin strip of meat attached to the actual fillet: you may or may not be able to get some meat out of that as well, if not the dog'll love it.

Now you need to cut the meat into half-inch slices against the grain this is important, to ensure that it's tender) and then cut the slices into strips. Once that's done, you should have a large pile of pork strips, which is good. Put them in a bowl (or, even better, a plastic tub with a lid) and contemplate them while you check out the wine. Personally, I'd go for something not too dry - a reisling would probably be good. And don't worry about authenticity - it's not as though they actually make wine in Normandy. (You could, I suppose, use cider. But that wouldn't be as much fun.)

Okay, now you need to flour the meat. This is why a plastic tub with a lid is a good idea: you put the meat in, add a quarter-cup of flour, some salt and herbs of choice, then put the lid on and shake it all about so that each strip of piggy-meat is nicely floured. You can do it in a bowl, with a fork, but it's harder and messier.

From here on it's remarkably easy. Heat some butter in a pan along with a bit of oil (so the butter doesn't burn) until sizzling, then fling the meat in and stir constantly until nicely browned on all sides. When it gets to that point would be a good time to add a quarter-cup of alcohol, wait 30 seconds and set fire to it. Do not hover over it whilst doing this, unless you feel you'd look better without eyebrows. Which is, I suppose, perfectly valid as a fashion statement, even if it does make you look like a prat.

Once the flames have been extinguished, add a half-bottle of white, turn the heat down low, and let the mess simmer. You have about half an hour during which you've nowt to do but stir it occasionally: you could profitably use this time finishing off the first bottle of white, opening the second, and getting whatever it is you plan on eating with it ready. Traditionally, that'd be buttered noodles, and I must admit that I can live with that. The other possibility is plain rice, but the noodles are better. You could also get a salad ready, and maybe fry up some apple slices in butter and finish them off with a dusting of sugar so that they caramelise.

I said to open a second bottle because you may, during that half-hour or so of cooking, need to top up the level in the pan, let alone your glass. You will also need to get some button mushrooms ready: this may involve opening a tin of them or, if you feel that way inclined, slicing and frying up some fresh ones. Either way, now would be a good time to sling them into the pan with the pork, which should be bathing in a fairly thick wine'n'herb sauce by now. We'll do something about that too, which is as simple as stirring in about 20cl of thick cream (they don't call this "normand" for nothing, you know).

Turn the heat up a bit and stir well until the whole mess thickens nicely again, at which point you could arrange the caramelised apple slices on top (these are optional, but I rather like them. Margo won't eat fruit with her meat, so she misses out.) and dust the whole lot with chopped parsley before serving. Don't forget the noodles. With lashings of butter, please.

The other thing I promised was clafouti. Way back when this was a simple peasant treat: fruit in some mangy batter, cooked in the oven. Everyone agrees that the original comes from the Auvergne, and that the fruit concerned has to be cherries. Unpitted. Personally I can't be having with that, and if I do make one with cherries I will in fact pit them first, mainly because I can't be arsed putting a spittoon next to every guest along with the dessert plates.

Of course, the original was just a thick pancake batter: egg, milk, and flour. We've evolved since then, and the recipe has forked (that's IT-speak for "has diverged in multiple directions") to produce some rather startling results. I have even seen clafouti, in an otherwise reputable patisserie, which was in a pastry case; this is an abomination. Not a good idea. I mean, just call it a flan and be done with it, why not? A lot of them tend to be rather stodgy, and I suppose there's nowt wrong with that if you like stodge, but we like this version, which is light and fluffy.

The other vexed question concerns the fruit. As I said, the original involves cherries and I must admit that it is delicious, but not everyone has a cherry tree close to hand (and anyway, the cherry season is short and it seems a shame to eat this only during a three-week period) nor a freezer full of cherries. Although bottled or tinned cherries work rather well. But in fact any firm fruit works well, and apricots exceptionally so. Or at least, that's the general opinion around here. And tinned apricots are, let's face it, easier - and cheaper - to get hold of than cherries.

First off, you will need to butter a large baking dish. I use one that's about 50cm x 25cm. It serves four, after everyone's taken seconds. Whatever, butter it, then sprinkle the butter with castor sugar and swirl that around a bit. It should caramelise during cooking, which is good.

Now it's time to make the actual batter, which is actually rather simple. Two cups of flour in a bowl with maybe a 1/4 cup of sugar, some cinnamon (which is not at all traditional but I like it), maybe some orange-flower water or a drop of lemon essence, and three egg yolks. Use a balloon whisk to mix all that together and add milk, whisking all the time, until you get something a bit thicker than thick cream, then whisk in about 50gm of butter, softened and cut into small chunks. Set that aside and turn your attention to the three egg whites (which I hope you didn't chuck, that'd be a waste): beat them well until you get, as they say, "stiff peaks", which just means that when you pull the beater out the beaten whites form a peak which doesn't slump sadly back into the mass. At which point add 1/4 cup of caster sugar and beat that in too.

I hope you can remember how to put a soufflé batter together, because that's what you have to do now. Scoop about a third of the whites into the batter and stir in with a rubber spatula until well mixed, then pour the result onto the rest of the whites and incorporate gently. You don't want enormous lumps of beaten white sitting sullenly around, but neither do you want to get rid of all those lovely microscopic air bubbles trapped in there which are going to make it rise when cooked.

Having got this far, open a 500gm tin of apricot halves or, in season, halve some fresh apricots. Note that if you're using fresh one you may need to sprinkle a little extra sugar over them when they go in, 'cos the little buggers can be acid: if you're using tinned ones, do try not to cut your wrists on the sharp edges. Anyway, pour half the batter into the buttered baking dish, arrange as many apricots as you think necessary on top, then pour the rest of the batter over and smooth it out a bit. At this point you can stick it into the fridge if required; it'll sit there happily for an hour or two without deflating.

Whatever, when the time comes to cook it, stick it in a hot oven for about 20 minutes, until it's starting to set and the top is going golden. It should also have risen rather nicely by then. So now take it out of the oven, sprinkle heavily with icing sugar, and put it back in for another five minutes. Then remove and serve to general applause.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

This little sea-kitten got caught in a net and died thrashing with dolphins ...

And bloody good riddance, if you ask me. Anything that goes around calling itself a "sea-kitten" deserves to die, preferably TWEPed. But anyway, I changed my mind, not going to talk about fish.

Actually, what I'm going to talk about is the last few Saturdays with Sophie. Last week I needed something quick so I went for steak Diane: today, now that spring is - reportedly - on the way I decided on eggs Benedict, which is also quick and decidedly brunchy. And just a bit decadent, with a glass or two of white.

Steak Diane is, I suspect, an American recipe - or if it's Frog, it dates from after 1940. (It's not in Pellaprat, nor in my Larousse, nor in "Jane's Big Book of All The World's Armoured Cars")  I'm not complaining, it's quick and easy and impressive, which pushes all my buttons. And as Sophie had asked epecially for something involving red meat (not something she usually runs after) it really did fit the bill.

Unfortunately it involves little or no alcohol (unless you really want to try flambé-ing it at the end - we'll get to that) but on the bright side, if you do decide to open a bottle anyway there'll be no wastage. So go ahead, open a bottle anyway.

When I say it's quick, I mean really quick - traditionally it's prepared at the table, and quite frankly most people are not prepared to wait for hours. Which is fair enough, they're paying for it after all. What I really mean is, get everything ready ahead of time, and don't count on drinking too much. So first of all I would organise the salad, get the bread sliced - if you want carbohydrates get some potatoes ready however you want them, but basically you start cooking the meat about 10 minutes before you're ready to sit up.

Start off with the two slices of fillet steak that you happen to have lying about. Sear them rapidly on each side in a good hot pan (can't beat cast iron) and then put them on a plate so that they can contemplate their apotheosis whilst you get everything else ready.

Which involves finely chopping a couple of shallots, and rehydrating some dried mushrooms - or chopping some button mushrooms if that's all you've got. Then the shallots go into the pan with some butter on a gentle heat so that they sweat - about five minutes should get them tender - then add the mushrooms and let them sweat a bit longer. If you're using fresh button mushrooms this may take a little while, as you want them to get rid of most of the water that makes up about 95% of their little bodies.

Once that's done, turn the heat down low and add a good 10cl of crême fraîche and let it melt: bring it to a simmer but don't let it boil unless you really want curdled crap. Then add as many chives as you want, a tsp of worcester sauce and another tsp of lemon juice and mix all that up, then plonk yer steaks back in, turning them once after a couple of minutes. The idea is to finish cooking them by poaching in the sauce, which'll result in lovely pink, unctuous meat.

Traditionally, you should flambé this with brandy or whisky - your choice. Normally you'd do this by flinging a shot-glass of the alcohol of your choice into the hot pan with the meat and setting fire to the alcohol as it boils off: unfortunately you can't do that here as the pan is full of low-temperature soggy sauce. So if you really insist, you'll need to put the alcohol in a small saucepan (I've got a really nice silver-tinned copper one that came with the house when we bought it) and bring it to the boil rather quickly, then light it and pour it, still flaming, over the meat. Be careful of your eyebrows and children, this is not something you want to try doing alone. Unless you really want to see the nice firemen at your house.

Eggs benedict are surprisingly nice, given that they're basically eggs on toast. Served with a good salad, or asparagus if it happens to be that time of year, with fresh goat's cheese on granary bread to follow, they make a lovely brunch. And luckily, you can get everything ready ahead of time and put it together at the last minute.

Basically, you need eggs, muffins, and bacon. Plus a bit of vinegar and lots of butter, but that's by the way. You may also need a bit of patience, if this is the first time you've poached an egg.

When I was little, we had an egg-poacher: a sort of plate with egg-sized indentations which went into a special pan with a lid: you'd fill the pan with water and get that simmering, then break an egg into each indentation, set the plate into the pan and stick the lid on and presto! five minutes later, perfect poached eggs (or, if you want to be technical, shirred eggs. Because they've been steamed on top, and get a mirrory appearance. Don't ask me, I didn't make the words up). No-one seems to do poached eggs anymore and the little pans are introuvable (sorry, can't be found - at least not around here) so I had to do them the old-fashioned way and discovered - rather to my surprise - that I still can do that.

All it involves is bringing a saucepan of water to a simmer (definitely not a full rolling boil), adding a slosh of vinegar (it's supposed to help coagulate the egg protein: given that you've got maybe a 1% solution of vinegar, which itself is only 4% acetic acid, I rather doubt it does any good, but I do it anyway - part of the ritual) and then stirring it with a spoon until you get a little whirlpool of hot excited water. Then you plop an egg (minus its shell, obviously) straight into the middle of the whirlpool - like that the white will wrap around the yolk rather than spreading out like some demented jellyfish. After three minutes it should be good - white firm, yolk still runny - so fish it out with a slotted spoon, set it on a plate, and do the next one. And so on until you've cooked as many as needed. I did four: there was Sophie and I (that makes two) and Lucas (who eats like any adolescent  ie enormously).

Then you just need to fry the bacon and make some bastard béarnaise, which I know I've told you about before but I'll repeat myself anyway: put an egg-yolk in a small saucepan along with a tbsp of good cider vinegar and the herbs of your choice (chives are always good) and put that on a low heat and whisk shit out of it. (Most books recommend doing this in a bain-marie, but I can't see the point in extra washing-up - just keep the temperature low or you will wind up with scrambled eggs.) When it starts to go frothy and thick it's time to take it off the heat and whisk in as much butter as you think it can handle - about 50gm should be right.

To assemble, stick yer buttered toasted muffins (no, I didn't forget them) on a serving dish with slabs of bacon on each and (delicately) slide a poached egg on top of the bacon. Then stick that into the oven for five minutes or so to warm it all up before serving, at which point you should slosh a spoonful of the bastard sauce over each one.

See? Easy.

Next time, I think - if you're good - it'll be filet de porc normand and maybe clafouti aux abricots, which is a favourite fall-back dessert around here and, quite honestly, delicious. No matter how much I make, there never seem to be leftovers. Strange, really.