A few weeks ago I was saying how versatile pain d'épices could be and here's some proof. If you can't lay your hands on some pain d'épices and don't fancy making any, then you could use slices of sourdough, pumpkin bread or even brioche instead. The spices add something extra, though, and a British gingerbread could do the job, as long as it’s not too sticky or too intensely gingery.
This dish was created as a starter. I don't often make starters - I'm not sure that many people do these days (unless they work in restaurants, of course). So I must point out that this doesn't have to be a starter. It will actually make a very good main course, especially if you add a little crème fraîche to the sauce, forget the pain d'épices and serve something like some sautéed potatoes and green veg alongside. But if you want a starter then this is intensely flavoured and just a little bit different. It also makes use of the cheap, delicious and unfairly ignored pig (or, if you prefer, pork) cheek.
The combination of pain d'épices and pork isn't original but I can't remember where I first saw it. I think it may have been in a Cyril Lignac recipe and since he apparently has more than 40 books to his name so far, there's a fair chance that it could have been. Finally, just a little personal aside: some of the very finest pork I've eaten in recent years was at Fallowfields in Oxfordshire, which closed at short notice early this year. Although I and many others will miss it, I wish the owners a long and happy retirement.
This will serve 4 as a starter or 2 if you make it as a main course.
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 small bulb fennel, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
4 pig cheeks cheeks,trimmed of any sinew if necessary
1 glass white wine
Small dash of tarragon vinegar (optional)
around 250 ml chicken stock
4 small, thin slices of pain d'épices
Fennel and apple, cut into matchstick-sized pieces
Soften the shallots and the fennel for 5 to 10 minutes in a little oil. Add the garlic and fry for a few more minutes. Remove the mixture from the pan and set aside. Add a little more oil and increase the heat. Season the pig cheeks and brown them lightly on both sides. Remove and set aside. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and the dash of tarragon vinegar, if you have any to hand. Let the wine reduce by about half. Return the shallot mixture and the pig cheeks to the pan and pour in the chicken stock. You may need a little more or a little less than 250 ml of stock depending on the size of your pan. The stock and wine should only partly cover the cheeks.
Bring to a gentle simmer, cover the pan and keep simmering gently for around 2 hours. Make sure the pan doesn't dry out and add more stock if necessary. Turn the pig cheeks over a few times during this period. Once tender, remove the cheeks and keep warm. Liquidise the remaining contents of the pan using a hand blender. If you're left with a lot of liquid you may want to reduce it to a coating consistency.
If you want to serve this as a main meal, then it’s not a bad idea to enrich the sauce by adding a little crème fraîche at this stage. To serve as a starter toast four small slices of pain d'épices, cut each cheek in half lengthways and place on the toasted pain d'épices. Anoint with the sauce. Serve with a small salad of fennel and apple cut into matchsticks. Dress the salad with either a simple vinaigrette or just a little pomegranate (or other fruit) vinegar.