Tuesday 26 May 2009

Pear and Caramel Cakes

The day before I went down to Cornwall I was brainstorming what I wanted to make. I had a nice list, took in some requests (cheesecake, chocolate, chocolate cheesecake, cake), and went to bed content.

Then, as I was lying there, I started dreaming up a new cake. I think it may have spawned from a favourite pear and chocolate crumble I make (favourite combination strikes again!), as I sometimes cook the pears in sugary, spice laden water before putting it all together if they're not ripe enough. I wanted the idea of lacings of caramel with the pear tender to bite. I thought I could mix half the caramel into the batter and swirl in the rest of the caramel, with the pears in. I got rather overexcited by the idea, so jumped out of bed and went to scrawl it down.

I wanted to make a loaf cake out of the mix, but when I got down there, we didn't have any decent baking equipment in the cupboard. On our trip to the supermarket I scouted out some normal cake tins for the cheesecake and cake, but alas - no loaf tin. I settled for some muffin tins - I knew the cake tins would be full of cheesecake and it just felt wrong to make it like that somehow!

Then I got home and started baking and realised that while we had three sets of scales - none of them really worked. We have a beautiful set of balance scales at home and some digital ones for backup/tiny amounts so I was really unused to them being so inaccurate. So some of my measurements were a little off, but hopefully I managed to gauge the amounts properly for the recipe.

I decided to use a very basic cupcake/plain cake mix I use as a starting point as my base, then add in the caramel. I had never actually made caramel before, so I did some research and found David Lebovitz's great articles on How to Make the Perfect Caramel and Ten Tips for Making Caramel. So I nervously poured some golden caster sugar into a big pan - read a little more and realised this was a bad idea - and swiftly tipped the golden caster out and replaced it with white. It got a little stuck to the spoon and I did get some crispy bits in it, as you can see below, but they were pretty yummy so I wasn't complaining.

I stopped it with some cream - perhaps a second too early, but it was still nice and not too underdone. Perhaps a little less would have made the liquid more solid? I know I'll be experimenting with this for years to come.

With all the caramel, the mixture came out pretty thin - next time I would definitely reduce the cream in the caramel and perhaps up the flour? I had too much mix for the muffin tins, so I put the rest in a handy quiche tin. I was a little worried at how sweet the mix was, but when cooked it mellowed out. I might still reduce the sugar in the cake another time.

They came out tasting lovely - if looking a little odd in their muffin environment, a loaf setting would definitely suit them better. I left the one that ended up in the quiche tin at home with Mum and she raved about it - which reinforces the idea it would be better in a bigger setting. They're sweet, but not overpoweringly so, with a slightly nutty taste, and the pear was perfect.

Definitely some room for improvement, but I'm very excited by how good they were.

Pear and Caramel Cakes

Edit: I've removed the recipe as I'm not happy with it and don't want you to try it and be disappointed. I'm working on a new version.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Bacon, Red Pepper and Mushroom Spaghetti

I don't often feel like a 'normal' savoury meal deserves a post. After all, however often we bake, it's not a necessity, it's not sustenance, it's something special. Baking doesn't feel everyday, even if it is done everyday.

This dish isn't something fancy, it's not a big palaver of a dinner party dish, but it's everyday. It tastes wonderful, don't get me wrong, but it's just... normal.

Close to the house in Cornwall there's this little farm stall with an honesty box just off the lane. They sell all their fresh veg along with eggs, some cakes, kindling etc etc. I miss fresh farm veg a lot in Verbier, as we have to buy supermarket stuff, at least in winter. Even onions are just so much better like this.

It doesn't need dressing up - I always feel the mark of amazing veg is that I would happy eat a plate of it on its own, with nothing but a little butter and salt and pepper. Perhaps not the onions, though!

This is a lovely, light spaghetti, though it feels fairly indulgently creamy. It's great to have some English bacon for a change - the thick smoked slabs of meat that are so different from Swiss bacon.

I adore red peppers, too - I used to devour whole peppers as a small child. I have no time for the green ones, though - only red, yellow, orange. Sunny colours! This was one of those lovely long ones which taste like bell peppers but look like chili- I think some people call them Italian sweet peppers?

I don't have a hugely detailed recipe - it's so simple anyway, it would be silly to get over-accurate on it.

Bacon, Red Pepper and Mushroom Spaghetti
(Serves 2)

1 onion
1 sweet pepper
3 rashers of thick bacon
3/4 big mushrooms
handful of parsley
100ml creme fraiche
100g spaghetti

Put the spaghetti on to cook according to the packet instructions. Soften the chopped onion with a little olive oil in a frying pan on a fairly high heat. Add the chopped bacon and cook for a minute or two before turning the heat down a little and adding the chopped mushroom and pepper. Heat until the mushrooms look wilted and cooked and the bacon is cooked through. Drain the spaghetti. Stir in the creme fraiche and parsley until the creme fraiche takes on a darker colour from mixing in and melts a bit, then toss the spaghetti into the saucepan, mix and plate up.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Cherry Cheesecake

Don't worry, what's above isn't my idea of a cheesecake - it's the inspiration for one!

When in Cornwall it would be a crime against food (and a crime in most diets, but hey...) to not eat at least one tub of clotted cream. Now I know that as somebody born in Devon, I should probably be claiming that it's actually from Devon, but I always grew up eating Cornish clotted cream on my scones. I just rebelled from their silly ideas of spreading the jam on first - everybody knows it goes on second (at least in Devon they do...). When scones aren't available, Mum and I spread it onto digestive biscuits. It's nearly as good - and even in some ways better!

So I was eating one of these - the one in the top photo, in fact - with a bit of cherry jam on top, and thinking about what flavour cheesecakes I wanted to make. (I had orders from my friends at uni that cheesecake had better be in the inevitable haul of food I brought back!). One had to be chocolate - more about that later - but this little biscuit-pretending-to-be-a-scone really brought back memories of a cherry cheesecake I ate as a child at a family party. I think somebody must have brought it with them - it was shop-bought - but I can remember the sour cherries on the creamy base clear as day.

Rather than the normal digestive base I usually do I decided to branch out and use shortbread, and it was lovely - can't believe I've never experimented with the base before! I used some bought shortbread as I didn't have time to make my own. I almost want to make a whole biscuit of shortbread the size of the tin, rather than crumbling it up and mixing with butter - any ideas as to if that would work?

I wanted to use fresh cherries on top, not just preserved ones or jam. I don't think they're quite in season yet, but I found some okay ones in the supermarket. I didn't have a huller or olive pitter or anything to quickly de-stone them, so I just split them in half and twisted the stone out. I think they might look prettier that way, too.

I didn't want to do a baked cheesecake - so I played about with an old family recipe for a plain lemon cheesecake with gelatin (I have a vague inkling it may be Delia in origin). I wanted a creamier filling than normal cream cheese gives, so I went for mascapone and a bit of creme fraiche instead.

I had to take the photos when it had just come out of the freezer - I transported it back to uni frozen - so excuse the frostiness of the photos! I had a slice when it was still pretty frozen, actually, and it was really nice - maybe I should start eating it like that normally!

Cherry Cheesecake
(Serves about 8-10)

For the base:
7 sticks of shortbread (about 125g)
50g butter

Crush up the biscuits in a plastic bag with a rolling pin until crumbled and without any big lumps. Melt the butter either in a saucepan or in a microwave. Pour the crumbs into the melted butter and mix well. If it looks too greasy smash up a few more more crumbs. Lightly grease a springform/loose bottomed 20cm/8" tin. Tip the crumb mixture in and flatten down into an even layer. Pop into the fridge to harden while you make the filling.

For the filling:
250g mascapone
225g creme fraiche (I used half-fat)
1tsp vanilla essence
125g golden caster sugar
2 eggs
rind of a lemon
4 sheets gelatin (consult your packet as to how much you need)

Put all the ingredients except for the gelatine into a bowl and mix well - I put it in my mixer with a whip attached, but only till well combined. Follow the instructions to create your gelatine - mine was a chop up the sheets, put them to soak in cold water, heat slowly till dissolved type. Pour it into the mixture and stir in well. Take the base out of the fridge and pour the filling in. Put it back in the fridge for at least 1-2 hours before adding the topping.


For the topping:
200g fresh cherries, once halved and pitted
2 dessert spoons cherry jam
1 tsp muscavado sugar
juice of a lemon
1.5 tsp cornflour (or you could use more gelatine if you want a stronger set)

Hull the cherries and place in a saucepan with the jam, sugar and juice w)ith about 4 dessert spoons water and slowly heat till the cherries are soft and tender. Drain the cherries out and put to one side. (If you want to use gelatine, just mix it the remaining juice). Put the juices back in the saucepan with the cornflour and put to boil - stir until thickened. When thick mix the cherries back in and leave to cool a little. When cool but not too set, spread onto the cheesecake and return to the fridge for another hour before serving. To release from the tin, run a knife around the edge and lift out (if it's frozen, keep a cup of hot water nearby and heat the knife in it otherwise it'll just get stuck!).

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Cornwall and simple pleasures

Over this last weekend I left Oxford and went down to see my mum in Cornwall for a break. I really wanted to get out of the city, of the infamous ‘bubble’ of college, and breathe a bit before exam season really starts. Sounds a bit cheesy. But it did me the power of good – and I had a kitchen! I would be lying if I said I hadn’t spent the majority of my break cooking. I did go on a few walks. And go out to the farmer’s stall and the supermarket. And do a tiny bit of my essay!

So during my little break I did cook fancier things – which I’ll be blogging about in the next few weeks – but it was often the simple things that really made me smile. Like the asparagus we bought from a local farmer which we blanched (no steamer in the Cornwall house!) and had with butter, black pepper and some fresh bread. Mum taught me the way she always cuts the ends off the asparagus – tapping them with a knife till it feels just right. That’s her hands cutting them. I made a lovely quiche with the rest of the asparagus, details to come…

Other fantastic simple things were having stewed rhubarb made from some local rhubarb, with my mum’s homemade custard (no matter how hard I try, I just can’t make it exactly the same). Or even just having museli with fresh fruit and yogurt, sprinkled with a little brown sugar.

I haven’t had time to sort out all my photos and recipes – and I now have two rather imminent essay deadlines – so I won’t leave you with a recipe... just a reminder to savour all those simple things you never think you would miss.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

Triple Chocolate and Pecan Cookies

I promised in my last post that I would share my attempt over the holidays to soothe my cravings for Ben's cookies by making these triple chocolate and pecan cookies. They're a bit different from Ben's - I used both dark and white chocolate, and they have walnuts rather than pecans. Thinking about it, I'm fairly sure that Ben's don't have nuts in the actual dough, either. But most of all it's the volume - these are fairly flat, even sunken - whereas Ben's have big domes. They're also a bit too crispy in places - I want some chewiness, and a more brownie-like consistency. I'm going on work on that over the summer. I think one starting point will be Erin Cooks' recipe for Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies. By the time I graduate I want to be able to recreate them perfectly!

I'm much more of a fan of pecans than of walnuts - I find walnuts often have a funny aftertaste. In a similar way I always thought macadamia nuts had a really metallic taste. Pecans almost always hit the spot, though, especially when toasted. The white chocolate chips I used were left over from decorating Mum's Birthday Cake, and I think some 'real' white chocolate would have improved them. They weren't half bad chips - but a lump of Green and Blacks or similarly cocoa-butter rich type. For some reason the supermarkets in town at home only have pretty shoddy white chocolate. Perhaps if we went down into the valley it would be better.

Despite the fact they're not Ben's, they're not quite tall enough, etc etc, they really are quite lovely. The nutty muscovado and the pecans go beautifully and the chocolate melds into the dough, yet you still get pockets of melted chocolate. The pile disappeared really very quickly.

Triple Chocolate and Pecan Cookies
(Inspired by a recipe from Australian Women's Weekly)

100g pecans
125g butter
200g soft brown sugar
1 egg
185g plain flour
50g cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
pinch of salt
150g dark chocolate
100g white chocolate

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. Toast the pecans in a dry saucepan or in the oven for 4-5 minutes or until they smell nutty and look slightly darker, then leave them to cool. Beat the butter and sugar together until well combined. Add the egg, then sift in the flour, cocoa, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt and beat just until combined. Chop and stir in the pecans and both types of chocolate. Scoop out balls of dough and place on lined baking sheets, with at least 4cm or so between them. Squish slightly. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until they look set in the centres. Remove from oven and let cool on the tray for five minutes before removing to a wire rack.

The dough keeps for at least a day in the fridge. I often freeze the balls of dough and then bake from frozen, which takes an additional 1-2 minutes. They keep in the freezer for up to two months.

(Makes 15-20, depending on size)

Thursday 7 May 2009

Ben's Cookies

One of the biggest culinary highlights of Oxford - at least as far as I'm concerned - is Ben's Cookies. They're incredible. You get them from the tiny little hatch shop in the Covered Market, bold in red and white and decorated with the fabulous Quentin Blake's special illustrations for them. (Anybody else grow up with Roald Dahl's books and Quentin's illustrations?) They bake the cookies on site and sell them either by weight and then popped in their infamous paper bags or in tins of six or ten. You can get a glass of milk or filter coffee too. They don't confuse it by adding or baking anything else: it's all about the cookies.

The Covered Market is one of my favourite places in Oxford. It's a little complex of shops, cafes, butchers, grocers, florists, cobblers, milliners, delis, sandwich shops, jewellers, pet shops, everything you can think of, all clustered under the vaulted pink roof of the market. I love the way it has all the individual shops - not like the big supermarkets of today - in their tiny little premises. They actually focus on what they're selling and do it brilliantly - as individuals rather than corporations - which gives it so much character.

Often twinned with Ben's Cookies is Moo-Moo's, which you can see in the photo below. It's a milkshake and smoothie hatch, and sells literally every milkshake flavour you could think of - any cake, sweet, biscuit, cookie etc will be on their menu. I think they have over 200 stable flavours and there's always specials on. In college people tend to either be Ben's or Moo-Moo's fanatics - it's a it of a split camp. Though I'm firmly with Ben, Moo-Moo's definitely have their sweet, sweet charm...

From their little hatch, Ben's sell twelve flavours of cookie. White, Milk and Dark Chocolate Chip. Double chocolate chip (chocolate dough and milk chips). Triple chocolate chip (chocolate dough and white and dark chips). Milk chocolate and Orange. Raisin and Oatmeal. Dark chocolate chip and Ginger. Fruit and Nut with Dark chocolate chips. Dark chocolate chip and Nut. And my favourite, my eternal order, the one some of the assistants give me without asking, the model of these portraits... Double and Nut.

These are not just any cookies. They take melt in the mouth to another level entirely. Always perfectly just undercooked, squidgy, yet crisp on the outside. They're often hot from the oven, the chocolate melted, oozing out. In winter I constantly got freezing fingers from eating the cookie hot out of it's iconic paper bag, getting chocolate all over them and having to lick it off. Often they ooze onto the sides of the bag as you break bits off. Double and Nut won my heart with it's dark, intense chocolate flavour, with plenty of muscovado in the depths, and a nutty overtone in the dough, the dark chocolate lacing it, chunks not feeble chips, and the beautifully toasted walnut on top, finishing a masterpiece.

This week I got an early birthday present - a new digital SLR! So I am now the proud owner of a Sony alpha A350 - and it's pretty damn fabulous. I'm only really starting out on taking my photography seriously - I've got so much to learn - but it's amazing to have the scope for so much improvement and to learn with a real camera rather than my phone or mum's point and shoot! These photos for this post were the first things I took after getting the hang of the camera, and I hope I've done Ben's Cookies justice - I'm pretty happy with the results. Yet I know I'll be looking back in a few weeks thinking I could do so much better now, but then that's the brilliance of learning.

Next post - my attempt to alleviate my withdrawal symptoms from Ben's in the holidays by baking cookies. I can't promise they're like Ben's - still working on that! - but they're pretty lovely and mean I'll finally be writing another recipe...