Thursday 29 November 2012

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte with Smoked Sea Salt

Though I know it's meant as a compliment and is very sweet, it makes me nervous when people's expectations of my cooking are set very high. For instance, when people who don't know me have been told to expect something incredibly delicious when I bring something to a party or event. Though I love cooking for people, I do find it stressful.

I spent a faintly ridiculous amount of time trying to work out what to bring to an event I went to this week. It had to be something that I could take in the basket of my bike. I didn't want to assemble, bake or reheat it when I got there. I'd never cooked for any of the guests before and so I had no clue about their likes or dislikes. Yet I wanted each person to feel it was worthy of the announcement: Emma will bring a superb dessert.

I decided that I'd make a Ginger Bourbon Pecan Pie, one of my favourite recipes. Then I realised that I needed to be able to write a post about it, as I've been testing for another project (announced here). That meant trying something new, as I don't have anything appropriate in the wings at the moment. An untested recipe adds another layer of danger to the situation - though I guess it does have a built in excuse for something being less than spectacular.

I thought chocolate would be a safe bet so I turned to Alice Medrich's wonderful Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts and found this 'Queen of Sheba Torte'. This version has been tweaked by Alice so that it's a one bowl recipe with no need to separately whip the egg whites. It's very clever.

A big packet of smoked sea salt has been lingering unopened in one of my cupboards for ages as I didn't quite know what to do with it. When Steph posted her Dark Chocolate Espresso Cookies with Smoked Sea Salt (also, coincidentally, adapted from an Alice Medrich recipe) I realised that I needed to pair it with dark chocolate. I also thought that hazelnuts would work wonderfully with a hint of smoke, so I swapped the almonds for hazelnuts.

On the night, the cake - still in the tin, cloaked in foil with an elastic band belt - joined a pot of double cream, my whisk and the remainder of the Raspberry Caramels in my bag. I tucked it all into my basket and cycled off into the murky drizzle to await their verdict.

While it seemed to go down fairly well, I wasn't totally happy with it. I didn't have any 70% chocolate, so I'd used 85% and added a little more sugar - I don't think it needed it. I also thought that I'd slightly overcooked it and it could do with a teeny bit more smoked salt. So I made a half recipe yesterday in my 6" tin, baked for 18 minutes (this version is in the top and bottom photos, I've put a full recipe below). Just as I finished, I realised I could have used cocoa powder in place of the flour to give it a bit of extra punch - another time. I'm happier with my second attempt (though I think I might have very slightly overdone the salt this time) and I'm looking forward to trying it again tomorrow - apparently it's best after about three days.

Finally, if you pull out a torte that looks like the one below, do not panic. I got rather worried that it looked like a normal cake and keep going back and forth to the kitchen, willing it to sink (definitely a first for me). Thankfully, it shrank, puckered and cracked as it cooled.

P.S. Do try the mixture before you bake it - it's sort of like mousse. Amazing mousse.

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte with Smoked Salt
(adapted from Alice Medrich's Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts)

70g whole hazelnuts
30g plain flour
170g dark chocolate (I used 85%)
140g unsalted butter, slightly softened
150g light brown sugar
big pinch of fine sea salt
4 large cold eggs (from the fridge)
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of smoked sea salt flakes

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Lightly butter an 8" springform or loose-based tin. Place the hazelnuts on a small tray in the oven and toast for a few minutes until they start to smell and darken slightly. If they have skins, rub as much as you can off with a tea towel. Put into a food processor with the flour and blast until they are finely ground.

Place a mixer bowl (or another bowl if using a hand mixer) over a pan of barely simmering water. Chop the chocolate up and tip into the bowl. Stir occasionally as it melts. Meanwhile weigh out the brown sugar and salt and cut the butter into cubes - it should be starting to soften, not squishy. When the chocolate has nearly melted, take it off the heat and stir until it's smooth. Place on the mixer (with the whisk attached) and add the sugar, salt and butter. Whisk on medium until the ingredients have fully combined and the mixture has lightened a little. Scrape the sides down then add the first egg. Whip until combined, then add the next egg. Repeat until they're all combined then add the vanilla and whip for 1-2 minutes on high until stiff and pale.

Add the ground hazelnuts and fold in. Scoop into the pan and level out. Sprinkle the smoked sea salt over the top. Bake for 28-35 minutes - a tester should still bring up a few sticky crumbs. Place on a wire rack and leave to cool fully in the tin. Wrap in kitchen foil and leave for at least one day and up to three before serving. Lovely with a big spoonful of whipped cream or crème fraîche.

(Serves 10-12)

A few related posts:
Sea-Salted Chocolate and Pecan Praline Tarts
Chez Panisse Almond Tart
Pear and Chocolate Crumble

Thursday 22 November 2012

Pear Pie & Raspberry Caramels

You know how sometimes everything you cook is just a little bit off? Not ruined, not inedible - just not what you'd expected. This week has been like that. Every day I wake up and think that today will be the day when I get my act together.

Maybe tomorrow.

After many experiments and accidents, I don't have a recipe for you this week. Instead, I have two ideas represented by two sets of photos. It seemed a shame to waste them. After writing about the hidden scaffolding of rules and habits behind this blog last week, it seems almost appropriate to break them.

First, I made a pear pie that had a bit of a soggy bottom (I dread to think what Mary Berry would have said).

My mum came to visit last weekend as there was a tiny slit of light in my schedule. The main reason the pastry went wrong was that I had to take the pie out of the oven early or she would have missed her flight home to Switzerland as she refused to leave without tasting it. I've also never made a pie with a pastry base in this ceramic dish - I think a metal one would be better.

You actually don't really need a recipe for this - just use your favourite pastry recipe (I used the one from the Apple and Quince Pie) and fill with chunks of firm but ripe pear. I mixed a tablespoon of brown sugar with half a teaspoon of ground ginger and sprinkled it between each layer of pears. The pears were concordes and were some of the best I've ever tasted.

I also tried to make some freeze-dried raspberry fudge, inspired by some I ate on my trip to Edinburgh a few weeks ago. It was my first attempt at fudge. I appear to have made caramels. Absolutely gorgeous, vanilla-flecked, raspberry-studded, salted caramels.

But as they're not what the recipe was meant to make and I can't test it again today to check, I don't feel comfortable giving you the recipe. I think the pastry gods were trying to tell me something - caramels appear to be an even better place for the raspberries than fudge.

If you can't wait for me to do more testing, you could try finishing a tin of salted butter caramels from David Lebovitz with a handful of crushed freeze-dried raspberries (I stirred some in, too, hence the slightly weird bumps). It's quite different from the recipe I used but I think it would give you a similar taste and texture.

A few related posts:
Banoffee Pies
Ginger Bourbon Pecan Pie
Dusky Caramel and Raspberry Crêpe Cake

Thursday 15 November 2012

Hervé's Two Ingredient Chocolate Mousse

Do you like having a set of rules to follow?

This week someone reintroduced me to a set of blogging tips by Joy the Baker. A few days later The Times ran a list of blogging rules. This evening I watched the Blog, Inc. Virtual Chat. All three things made me think about my own rules.

After three and a half years of blogging I have a lot of habits and systems. There's a big framework behind the blog - a rabbit warren full of tunnels hiding under the surface. Even the things that are obvious if you look for them (the top photo is always of the finished dish then they're in chronological order) hopefully slip under the radar while you read. Over time it's rebuilt but the main frame stays the same. I'm attached to that frame - I like patterns.

I get quite a few emails asking for blogging advice. I've never posted about it before as I thought it was better to reply individually without bothering the rest of you. Today I changed my mind as I realised that my main tip - individuality - is as universally applicable as advice can get. It has all been said many times before by people greater than me, but here goes anyway:

Work out what your rules are. The only real way to do that is to practice, experiment and observe. What do you like about your favourite blogs? Does it annoy you when somebody does x? Which posts do you like and which turn you off? What is important to you as a reader or follower? What are your strengths?

Never stop thinking about what you're doing. Keep editing, keep polishing and pushing forwards. Try not to spend your time and energy worrying about numbers and success - concentrate on what you do and doing it well. It is hard work, though not everyone will acknowledge that. But if you love it? It's worth every single moment.

They say rules are made to be broken. The first thing you do in this recipe - melt chocolate with water - feels wrong. Water usually makes chocolate seize. So how can you make mousse out of just chocolate and water? It sounds impossible but it works. The technique was pioneered by Hervé This, a French chemist. There's a video of Heston Blumenthal making it (without his glasses, which is quite disconcerting) and James made it in the BBC Great British Bake Off semifinal.

It's not quite like a normal mousse. It's more creamy, akin to ganache, and very rich. Use a chocolate that you love the taste of - it's the only flavour so it needs to be good. I left it at a thick pudding stage but I think you can go a little further before it becomes grainy.

I added a bitter cocoa nib crunch and soft, just-whipped cream, but this really is a blank canvas. Perhaps you could add flavours into the water (fruit puree? alcohol?) or scrape it into a blind baked pastry case.

If you're struggling to get cocoa nibs (lots of people seem to miss them out of the Salted Caramel & Cocoa Nib Brownies), I recently bought some online from Sous Chef as I haven't found them in Oxford yet. I've bought a few things from that site and they've always been good quality. I've also found the nibs in health food shops elsewhere.

(A final note on one of my rules that I hope is visible: I never accept products for review or work for companies on this blog - so no need to ever wonder if something I say is sponsored.)

Hervé's Chocolate Mousse
(Adapted from Hervé This' Molecular Gastronomy, via Food 52)

100g high quality dark chocolate (roughly 70%)
80ml (or g) water
a few handfuls of ice cubes
good glug of double cream (optional garnish)
cocoa nibs (optional garnish)

Chop the chocolate up into chunks. Put the ice into a bowl then fit a metal bowl (if possible, it will let the mixture cool faster, meaning less whisking) into it. Add some water to the ice to make sure the bottom of the top bowl is submerged and cooled. Get a whisk and serving bowls ready.

Place the chocolate into a saucepan with the water. Warm over low-medium heat until the chocolate has dissolved and you have a smooth liquid. Pour into the cold bowl and start whisking immediately. As you whisk, the mixture should start to slowly thicken. Keep going until it holds thick ribbons. Quickly transfer to your serving bowls before it starts to set.

Remove the chocolate bowl from the ice and replace with a clean one. Pour in some double cream and whip until it holds soft peaks. Spoon over the mousse and sprinkle some cocoa nibs over the top. Serve immediately if possible. If not, place in the fridge then bring up to room temperature before serving.

(Serves 2-3)

A few related posts:
Muscovado Truffles
Lemon Posset
Coconut Milk Chocolate Cake

Thursday 8 November 2012

Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars

Almost two years ago to the day, on the 14th November 2010, I posted a recipe for Date Crunchies. I've been eating the little squares of buttery semolina crunch with a lemony date filling all my life.

As with most people, when I'm stressed, tired or ill, I reach for the food of my childhood. Just as I was in that post two years ago, I'm stressed about work at the moment - it's a very deadline-heavy and time-short patch of term. I needed some crunchies but this time I wanted to try a variation.

A few weeks ago I was perusing the bakery section in M&S when I spotted a little sample tray of bread cubes. Curiosity piqued by the idea of a 'fig and hazelnut loaf', I tried one. It was so good that I gave in to the marketing ploy and bought a loaf (don't tell anyone I said this or I'll get pitchforked by the purists but it's wonderful in a streaky bacon sandwich).

I'd been thinking about fig as a filling for an updated crunchie for a few months but it felt like it was missing something - hazelnut was the answer. I swapped the dates for figs, lemon for orange, some of the flour and semolina for ground hazelnuts and scattered some more hazelnuts over the top. I spent at least five minutes debating in my head if it was too predictable for me to brown the butter. In the end I gave in (as I always do). My defence is that as it's beurre noisette and the whole point is that it's hazelnutty, I had to.

The final product is crumbly (hence the new name), crunchy and gloriously full of that noisette - I can't tell where brown butter ends and hazelnut starts. The fig filling has a lovely bit of chew, but it's the seeds that are the best bit: they crackle almost like popping candy.

Finally. The reason that you don't have a picture of a full tray is because darkness fell while they baked. So I had to save them for today. I couldn't resist.

Fig & Hazelnut Crumble Bars
(Adapted from Date Crunchies, which were adapted from Delia's Book of Cakes)

For the crumble base and top:
100g whole hazelnuts
175g unsalted butter
150g plain flour
125g fine semolina
75g light brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of fine sea salt

For the filling:
220g soft dried figs
3 tbsp water
2 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Line a 20cm/ 8" square tin (or similar size) with baking parchment. Place 75g of the hazelnuts in the tray and toast for a few minutes. If they have skins, rub them in a tea towel until most of the skin has come off. Place the butter into a medium pan and heat until you have brown butter (see here for more instructions/tips) then leave to cool.

Chop the figs up into small chunks and place in a saucepan with the water, orange juice and brown sugar. Heat until the figs have softened into a spreadable paste (still with some lumps) - help it along by squishing them with a spatula/spoon.

By now your hazelnuts shouldn't be too hot, so place them in a food processor and blend until they're finely ground. Tip into a mixing bowl and add the flour, semolina, brown sugar, baking powder and salt. Use a whisk to stir everything together (it's a great way to combine dry ingredients when they'd struggle to get through a sieve). Pour in the brown butter and stir until just combined.

Tip half of the mixture into the tray and press down into an even layer with a spatula/spoon/your hands. Scrape the sticky fig mixture into the tray and spread it out, trying not to pull up the base. Finally add the rest of the mixture to the tray, spread out (press down a little - I didn't and mine was very crumbly on top) and fork up a little so you get some pebbles. Roughly chop the remaining 25g of hazelnuts and sprinkle them over the top. Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. Leave to cool in the tin, then chop into bars. Keeps well - I think they're better on the second day.

(Makes about 12-15, depending on size)

A few related posts:
Toasted Coconut and Dark Chocolate Blondies
Snickers Brownies
Brown Sugar, Cinnamon and Hazelnut Meringues

Thursday 1 November 2012

Apple Fritters

I'm down to the last few apples.

Their bright red and green skins are a little tough and yellowed now, their insides softer and supple. I've been eating and cooking with them for months, from the first ones plucked from the tree when they were just ripe to my main harvest. Since the harvest (and my last apple post) I've made a batch of apple and sultana chutney, a big oaty crumble with a bramley, roasted chunks to eat with sausages and grated several of them into porridge.

I had one more thing I wanted to try before the end of the season: apple fritters.

This recipe is based on one from Juls' Kitchen, the blog of a lovely Italian lady - one of the few bloggers I've had the pleasure to meet. I swapped the extra virgin olive oil for brown butter (can't help myself) and used sparkling water instead of lager (the sparkle makes the batter lighter & I wanted it to be non-alcoholic). They only take about fifteen minutes - perfect for when you're hungry, drenched with cold rain from biking home and your kitchen is nearly dark at 2:30pm.

I'd never eaten an apple fritter before. The first thing that hits you is the granular sugar (provoking instant doughnut-recognition-alert-alert-this-must-be-good), then hot crispy coating and tender, perfectly cooked apple. It was love at first bite. They're delightfully messy, a treat to be eaten in the kitchen with your fingers, friends crowded round to get the next one out of the oil. Why have I not been making them for years?

Apple Fritters
(adapted from Juls' Kitchen)

15g unsalted butter
1 egg
2 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp sparkling water (or lager or sparkling cider)
1 pinch fine sea salt
2 eating apples
caster sugar to toss
flavourless oil to fry - sunflower, canola, peanut

In a small pan, brown the butter (see here for extra instructions). Pour into a bowl to cool a little. Beat the egg in a shallow bowl, then add the flour, sparkling water and sea salt and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the warm brown butter and leave to sit while you prepare the apples. It should be thick enough to get a thin coating that stays on the apple.

Peel the apples then use a corer to take out the centre. Cut into 1cm thick slices, being careful not to break the circles. Prepare two plates: one with kitchen roll and another with a layer of caster sugar. Pour about 2cm of oil into a heavy-bottomed pan and heat over medium-high until shimmering and just starting to smoke. When you think it's ready, let a drip of batter fall into the oil - it should sizzle enthusiastically and turn brown fairly quickly.

Dip a slice into the batter, making sure it's fully covered, then place carefully in the oil (use a slotted spoon or a couple of forks and lower it in - you don't want to splash oil that hot). It should sizzle and bubble away. Turn over when the sides of the slice are a deep golden brown then remove when both flat sides are done. Transfer to the kitchen roll plate for a minute to soak up excess oil, then move to the sugar plate and toss/sprinkle until covered. Eat as quickly as possible. Repeat with the rest of the slices and batter - once you know the oil is the right temperature and have the method down, you can increase the number of slices according to the size of your pan. These do not keep, though I imagine the batter would be ok in the fridge for 24 hours (whisk again when you want to use it).

(Serves 2-3, makes about 8-10 fritters)

A few related posts:
Clementine Ricotta Doughnuts
Churros with Chocolate Sauce
Tarte aux Pommes