Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Proustian Sunsets and a Crème au Chocolat

Once upon a time I imagined that I'd get around to reading Proust when I was old. A few years ago I was walking along the Promenade Marcel Proust on the Cabourg seafront in Normandy as the sun was going down and it occurred to me that I was old and so I'd better get on with it.  Cabourg was the inspiration for the Proustian Balbec and the sunsets are as notable in real life as they are in literature. (And you can still get a notable seafood dish or two along the Cabourg seafront too).
Cabourg Sunset
So wearing suitable clothing and with a lot of strong coffee to hand I read all seven volumes. It took a while, but I survived. Don't worry I'm not going to attempt any form of literary criticism - this is a food blog, I seem to remember - but there are two observations that I'd like to pass on. First, at some point during volume two I actually started to think that prodigiously long sentences were perfectly normal and had to give myself a serious talking to in short phrases. Second, there are more jokes in Proust than I was expecting (I wasn't really expecting any at all).
Cabourg Sunset
Think of Proust when you're hungry and you're likely to think of the famous madeleine. It's mentioned early in volume one of 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu', so that's fair enough but a reproduction of some of Proust's notebooks was published recently and it appears that the madeleine was something of an afterthought. Initially Proust may have been inspired to begin writing his sizeable masterpiece by a slice of toast. But I digress – well, of course I do, I've been reading Proust.

Now you might expect an elaborate bit of haute cuisine to celebrate Proust but, while I was part of the way through my Proustathon, I read a blog post by Francis Tessandier of the fine literary restaurant Chez Francis in Brive-la-Gaillarde who had chosen a crème au chocolat to honour the inspiration of Proust. It's a little treat that clearly meant a lot to Proust and his family so I'm stealing that idea, although with a very different sort of recipe. Little chocolate crèmes are more often than not made by creating an enriched custard and adding chocolate before cooking in a bain-marie. As usual, though, I'm trying to make life as simple as possible and this recipe for crème au chocolat is ridiculously simple. There's no bain-marie, no additional sugar and, if you go to similar supermarkets to me and buy the items below, not even any measuring.

The result is perhaps not as light and fleeting as Françoise produced for the Proust household but it's silky and rich and should persuade anyone that you made a big effort to please them even though that's not quite the case. There's nothing surprising about the ingredients, it's the technique that's so different. It's based on the Joyce Molyneux method from her legendary time at the Carved Angel restaurant in Dartmouth from the 1970s to the 1990s. In my insignificant opinion she was a true giant of British cooking.
Crème au Chocolat
I used a raspberry liqueur to add additional flavour, but other liqueurs such as orange or hazelnut will work just fine if that's what you have. If you don't want to use alcohol, then try other flavourings such as orange extract, but don't add too much or it may mask the chocolate flavour.

200 g bar of dark chocolate (good quality, obviously)
300 ml tub of single cream
1 egg
2 tsp raspberry liqueur (or whatever flavouring you fancy)

Bash the wrapped chocolate bar on the worktop a few times to break it into small pieces. (You don't have to be too fussy about this, as long as the chocolate is in relatively small chunks). Unwrap and pour the chocolate into a food processor.

Pour the contents of the tub of single cream into a small saucepan and turn on the heat. As soon as the cream comes to the boil, pour it into the food processor and whiz until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth. (This won't take long but you may need to scrape down the bowl of the processor once or twice).

Add the egg and the liqueur. Process again until the egg is thoroughly mixed in. Pour the mixture into espresso cups or small ramekins (you should get about 6 small but satisfying servings). Chill in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. Remove from the fridge 30 minutes or so before serving if you remember.

Just in case you were wondering what Proust might have to say on this subject, here's a short snippet. It's in the original French, which means that I'm not only annoying, I'm also deeply pretentious.

"Quand tout cela était fini, composée expressément pour nous, mais dédiée plus spécialement à mon père qui était amateur, une crème au chocolat, inspiration, attention personnelle de Françoise nous était offerte, fugitive et légère comme une œuvre de circonstance où elle avait mis tout son talent …… Même en laisser une seule goutte dans le plat eût témoigné de la même impolitesse que se lever avant la fin du morceau au nez du compositeur."

I'm submitting this recipe to the latest Novel Food event hosted by Simona Carini at briciole and hopefully she'll forgive me for having the effrontery to represent the monumental 'À la Recherche du Temps Perdu' by a recipe that may very well take less time to make than it takes to read one of Proust's longer sentences.

I've been a bad blogger and not entered anything into We Should Cocoa for more than a year so I'm also submitting this to the latest challenge over at Tin and Thyme.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Taloa with Duck Legs and Plums

Taloa is a simple Basque flatbread that can be wrapped around a variety of savoury and even some sweet fillings. It's quite often filled with ventrèche; in other words, it's made into a southern French bacon sandwich - kind of. I've come across quite a few variations on this simple little bread, some of which I suspect add yeast since they look and feel more like a pitta bread. This simpler version is based on a recipe from a tourist office leaflet so I assume it's reasonably authentic. The breads would normally be cooked on a flat grill (plancha) but a frying pan does the job too. If you're wondering why cornmeal is used then you clearly haven't driven along the many, many miles of road lined with maize fields in the south west of France.

There are plenty of plums around in that area too so I've added some to the duck sauce. I used fairly large British plums, but if you have some of the smaller varieties (and smaller varieties do seem to be popular in the south west) then add a few extra. You can't travel far in that fine region without coming across duck being cooked in one way or another but, I must admit, you won't find it being cooked exactly like this. Never mind, I like it anyway.
Taloa with Duck Legs and Plums
Most of this dish is prepared in advance but should be finished off and put together at the last minute. I added another touch of the Basque region by topping the filling with a little Ossau-Iraty cheese but you could use something like a Swaledale sheep's cheese as a fine British alternative.


100 g fine cornmeal (polenta or maize flour)
300 g plain flour
230 - 280 ml water

This amount will probably make more taloa than you need but a few spares are no bad thing.

Combine the cornmeal and flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in the 230 ml of water and gradually bring the flour and cornmeal mixture into the centre and mix to make a dough. Add more of the water gradually as you mix until the dough comes together. It should be quite a firm dough and not too wet. Cover the bowl so that the dough doesn't dry out too much and set it aside to rest for for 30 – 60 minutes.

When your filling is ready to serve, tear off a small handful of the dough and roll it out on a floured surface to make a thin, round bread. Unless you have a large flat grill then try to make them a suitable size for your frying pan. Heat the pan or grill and dry fry the breads over a high heat for about 3 minutes each side. The exact time needed will vary according to the thickness of the bread. The taloa should puff up a little and char here and there.

Duck and Plum Filling

2 duck legs
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
½ tsp fresh ginger, very finely chopped
1 glass dry white wine
8 plums, halved and stoned
1 sprig rosemary
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 tbsp honey (you may not need this if the plums are particularly sweet)
300 - 500 ml light chicken stock
A few slices or slivers of Ossau-Iraty or an alternative sheep milk cheese to serve

Ensure that the skin of the duck legs is dry, prick the skin in a few places and season with salt and pepper. Brown the duck legs in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for a few minutes on each side. This should produce a fair amount of fat. Remove the duck legs and set aside.

Pour away all but about a teaspoon of the fat and use it to fry the shallot gently for 2 - 3 minutes. (If the duck legs haven't produced much fat, then add a little oil). Add the ginger and garlic and continue frying gently for another 2 - 3 minutes. Turn up the heat and add the wine. Stir and allow the wine to reduce until it's nearly disappeared, then turn down the heat and return the duck legs to the pan. Tuck the halved plums in around the duck legs and add the rosemary, the pomegranate molasses and the honey if you’re using it. Pour in enough of the chicken stock to cover the duck legs by about two thirds. Cover the pan and let it simmer over a low heat for about 90 minutes, turning the duck legs every now and then. At the end of that time the duck meat should be very tender but not quite falling off the bone.

Remove the duck legs from the cooking liquid and set aside to cool a little. Skim as much fat from the top of the cooking liquid as you reasonably can, remove and discard the rosemary and liquidise the remainder using a hand blender. Place it over a high heat and reduce the liquid down to a sauce-like consistency. While that's happening, remove and discard the skin from the duck and slice or shred the meat.

To serve, add some duck meat to one half of the freshly-cooked taloa (ideally before removing from the frying pan or grill) and drizzle over a generous amount of the reheated sauce. Top with a sliver or two of Ossau-Iraty. Fold the other half of the taloa over the filling and serve at once.
Maize and Mountains

Monday, 15 August 2016

Wheat Beer Walnut and Fig Breadmaker Loaf

This recipe is based (very loosely) on a bread from northern France although the original was an artisan product needing a lot more time and attention than most of us can spare for a loaf. So here's my simplified, busy person's machine-made version. It may not have quite the finesse of the original, but it still makes a very good alternative to the usual breadmaker loaves. In fact, it's one of my favourite machine breads. It works especially well with pâtés and cheeses.

There are plenty of very good wheat beers available in supermarkets and specialist shops but if you come across any bottles of Christophe Noyon's Blanche de Wissant in your travels then I'd recommend grabbing some. It's a fine beer that's from the same area as the original recipe. If you can't lay your hands on any wheat beer, then you could use a lighter style of lager as an alternative. In fact this recipe can be adapted quite easily by changing the type of nut or dried fruit as well as the type of beer. With some more intense, darker beers you may find you need to increase the amount of sugar or swap some of the beer for water to avoid the bread developing an overly bitter taste.
Beer, Walnut and Fig Bread
The recipe given here was developed for a Panasonic breadmaker but it will work just fine in other breadmakers. The order in which the ingredients are added to the breadmaker and the names of the programs may well differ for other types of machine, though, so always consult the manual for your model if in doubt.   

1¼ tsp dried fast action / easy blend yeast (the sort intended for breadmakers)
325 g strong white flour
150 g spelt flour
3 tsp sugar
1¼ tsp salt
3 tbsp walnut oil
280 ml wheat beer
30 ml water
70 g chopped walnuts
70 g chopped dried figs

Add all the ingredients except the walnuts and figs to the breadmaker in the appropriate order. The order given here is for a Panasonic model – check the manual for other models. Set the programme to large size, basic bake setting. If your breadmaker has a dispenser that automatically adds additional ingredients then put the walnuts and figs in the dispenser and set the breadmaker accordingly. If the breadmaker doesn't have an automatic dispenser then you'll need to add the walnuts and figs at the time recommended in the manual for your machine.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Cherry Chutney

It's cherry season and the trees are obligingly providing plenty of fruit. Not that I have any cherry trees but the local Pick Your Own has plenty. Sorry to repeat myself but I really do love a PYO. Disconcertingly I'm offering another savoury recipe where you might expect something sweet - but why not?
Cherry Trees
This is quite a smooth chutney that's very versatile and works well with cold or hot meats but is absolutely ideal with cheeses. Admittedly this isn't a particularly novel idea - there are a lot of similar chutney recipes around, but this is the combination that works for me. You can add other spices or some chilli if you wish, but I wouldn't overdo the spice or it will diminish the fruity flavour.

The chutney will take a little while to make and the amounts here will only produce roughly 2 small jars but there's really not a lot of effort involved and it's an enjoyable bit different to other chutneys. It will add a serious amount of flavour to your cold (or even hot) lunch.

By the way, I hadn't tried a cocktail made with puréed fresh cherries and a mix of various alcoholic beverages until last week (I've led such a sheltered life) but I'd heartily recommend that journey of discovery too.
Cherry Chutney
1 fennel bulb
1 onion, finely chopped
600g cherries (weight before pitting)
2 cm (or thereabouts) fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
Zest of 1 lemon, very finely grated
¼ tsp English mustard powder
½ tsp fennel seeds
125 ml cider or white wine vinegar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
225 g granulated sugar

Chop the fennel bulb into small chunks, discarding any damaged or tough parts. In a non-reactive pan soften the fennel and chopped onion very gently in a little oil. If it threatens to dry out add a spoonful or two of water. While that's going on, wash and pit the cherries. Once the onion and fennel are tender stir in the cherries. Keep the heat low and fry for a couple of minutes, stirring now and then.

Stir in the grated ginger, lemon zest, mustard powder and fennel seeds together with a generous seasoning of black pepper and a little salt. Once everything is well mixed, add the sugar and vinegars and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Increase the heat a little and allow the mixture to reduce, stirring now and then to make sure that it doesn't burn or stick to the pan. The chutney is ready when it's as thick as you want it to be (mine took about 40 minutes), but the way I was taught to check when a chutney is ready is as follows. Run your wooden spoon across the base of the pan and if it leaves a trail that doesn't immediately fill in, then it's ready. (If in doubt, I'd err on the side of quite a loose, runny chutney in this case because it will thicken somewhat as it cools.)

Cool the chutney a little and pour into sterilised jars. This should keep in a cool, dark place for a fair few months, but I can't be sure because I'm just too keen to eat it quickly. This feels like a seasonal chutney that's full of summer.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Gooseberry and Beetroot Ketchup

In the past I've bored everyone I know and anyone unfortunate enough to stumble across this blog by wittering on about how undervalued I think gooseberries are these days. They make very fine jam and puddings, of course, but they're possibly even better in savoury dishes. So I can't let the gooseberry season pass without one more savoury recipe and this year it's a ketchup. Very easy and very delicious I promise. The weather hasn't been perfect this spring or summer so far (I'm a master of understatement) but the gooseberries finally arrived in abundance at the local pick-your-own farm. I really love a PYO and I'm not ashamed to say it.
Gooseberries at the PYO
I've combined the sharp gooseberries with the sweetness of beetroot and I suppose I should suggest that you pick fresh beetroot and cook your own. That's a very good thing to do but vacuum-packed, cooked beetroot without added vinegar will definitely do the job if you're pushed for time (and I bet you are).

Gooseberries are traditionally used alongside fish and this ketchup would work very well with fish burgers or fish cakes, but it's much more versatile than that. In particular, it's very fine with a classic beef burger. You could probably live without my recommendation but I'd say a burger made from the luxurious Wagyu beef produced by Ifor Humphreys in Powys and served in a freshly-baked brioche bun would be just about as good as it gets for me.
Gooseberry and Beetroot Ketchup
This will make roughly 400 - 500 ml of ketchup but it's difficult to be exact because much will depend on the juiciness of your gooseberries and just how thick you like your ketchup. Although the amounts given here worked for me, it's a forgiving recipe and you can change the spices to suit your taste. I won't be cross if you do.

1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
½ chilli (or more if you like some heat), deseeded and finely chopped
1 cm ginger (or thereabouts), peeled and grated
500 g gooseberries
100 ml cider (or white wine) vinegar
¼ tsp salt
A generous few turns of pepper
125 g granulated sugar
1 tsp English mustard powder
175 g cooked beetroot

Put all the ingredients in a non-reactive pan, place on a gentle heat and bring to the boil, stirring frequently. Simmer over a gentle heat for 30 minutes or so until all the ingredients are very tender.

Liquidise and then sieve the mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning and the sweet/sour (vinegar/sugar) balance if it needs it. Hopefully the consistency will be to your liking but if it's too thin then return it to the cleaned pan and reduce it over a medium heat until you get the thickness you prefer. (It will thicken somewhat as it cools, so don't overdo it).

Cool a little and pour into sterilised bottles. This should keep for a few months in a cool, dark cupboard although I store it in the fridge just to be on the safe side and it should definitely be put in the fridge once opened.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Lamb Argenteuil

Before it was swallowed up by the spreading suburbs of Paris,  Argenteuil was known for being a good place for messing about in boats, knocking together the occasional Impressionist painting and growing asparagus. At that time pretty much any French dish that used asparagus tended to get the word ‘Argenteuil’ nailed on to it.

Argenteuil was best known for its white asparagus but this dish uses green. To be honest it's a slightly alarming green at first sight, but please don't be put off. This recipe seems to turn up in books in some form or another but very rarely in real life. I can't remember ever seeing it on a modern restaurant menu and I've never met anyone else who makes it. That's a shame because it might seem a little eccentric (and green) but it's also pretty easy to make and tastes delicious, especially if you love asparagus anywhere near as much as I do.
Lamb Argenteuil
You might come across some versions of this recipe that are much richer but this is my slightly more restrained effort for these slightly more restrained times. This will serve 2.

300 g (trimmed weight) green asparagus
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
350 g (approximately) lamb neck fillet
½ glass white wine
2 tbsp crème fraîche

Wash the asparagus and discard any woody ends. Cook the asparagus in gently boiling water until tender - this will take around 6 - 10 minutes depending on the size and freshness of the asparagus. Remove and drain the asparagus but don't discard the cooking water.

Trim any excess fat from the lamb, slice into 2 - 3 cm pieces and season lightly. Fry the shallots gently in a little oil and butter until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and continue frying gently for a few minutes. Add the lamb, increase the heat and fry until it takes on a little colour.

Pour in the wine and allow it to reduce until only a very small amount remains. Pour in around 250 ml of the reserved asparagus cooking water - you don’t need too much liquid, it shouldn't completely cover the lamb. Partly cover the pan and bring to a simmer. Continue simmering gently for 60 - 90 minutes until the lamb is tender. The liquid in the pan should reduce during cooking but add more of the cooking liquid if it's in danger of drying out.

Cut off some or all of the tips of the asparagus to use for decoration, put the remainder in a food processor and reduce to a thick, smooth purée. You may need to add a little of the cooking water if the asparagus seems too dry to form a genuinely smooth purée.

By the time the lamb is tender the liquid in the pan should ideally have reduced to something like a coating consistency. If there seems to be too much liquid, remove the lid and allow it to reduce a little more. Stir in the asparagus purée and the crème fraîche. Allow the mixture to heat through. Taste, adjust the seasoning and add a squeeze of lemon juice if you think it needs it.

Gently reheat the asparagus tips and use them to decorate the plates when serving. Some simply steamed or boiled new potatoes will do very nicely alongside.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Chestnut Cupcakes

Last year I posted a recipe for Gâteau Ardéchois (a plain French chestnut cake) and at the time I said that we'd made some iced chestnut cupcakes while in France. Those cakes were based on a Marie Claire recipe but I wanted to try changing some of the flavours and textures of that original to suit my personal taste and, finally after more than a year, this is the result.

Chestnut purée is available in different forms. The type I've used here is unsweetened and not flavoured (many versions have added vanilla). This type is fairly widely available in the UK and is generally thicker than many of the French products. If the purée you use is a little runny, then you may find the baking times increased.

I like these little cakes just as they are – they stay very moist and have that pleasingly different chestnut flavour. On the other hand, if you fancy a topping then something creamy and lemony works particularly well. I used a combination of homemade lemon curd and mascarpone on a few of the cakes for a bit of a treat.
Chestnut Cupcakes
This should make 10 – 12 cupcakes.

3 eggs
100 g caster sugar
60 g flour, sieved
½ tsp baking powder
200 g unsweetened, unflavoured chestnut purée
50 g ground almonds

Preheat the oven to 170°C.

Whisk together the eggs and sugar until the mixture is very light in colour. Beat in the flour and baking powder followed by the chestnut purée. Stir in the ground almonds. Pour into cake cases or prepared tin filling them around ⅔ full. Bake for 18 – 25 minutes. The exact baking time will obviously depend upon the size of cakes you make but could also vary according to the consistency and type of chestnut purée that you use.

Decorate when cold if you fancy a topping.