Thursday 27 December 2012

Best of 2012

Every year, on New Year's Eve, I write a letter to myself. I scrawl all of the most important moments, feelings and choices of the past year onto paper, without jumping back to edit or read. I add on my hopes and plans for the year to come. Then I seal it up and put it away, ready to be opened a year later. It's my way of concluding the year and turning towards the next.

My other tradition is to post about five recipes from the passing year that I think deserve the spotlight (but haven't featured on my sidebar or had much attention). This year I've added text to the images, so click on the photo to see the post.

Which is your favourite?

You can also look at the:
Best of 2010
Best of 2011

Thursday 20 December 2012

Toasted Cinnamon Marshmallows

8 firemen. 2 enormous fire engines. 2 hours until twenty guests arrived. 1 embarrassed, tearstained cook.

I'd been searing the chicken pieces, mushrooms and onions in small batches for about 40 minutes. I sloshed brandy into the pan to deglaze it and multiplied the quantity by ten for my huge batch. I wasn't surprised when the pan burst into flames but I was surprised by the rather large ball of fire in front of me and the way it wasn't going out, choosing to burn into the fan hood above the hobs and lick around the cupboards. I panicked, worried that the electrics in the fan were going to catch, grabbed my electric/liquid fire extinguisher, flung the tab to the floor and pressed the button.

Hunched over, with my apron clenched to my mouth, I ran around opening windows as the house filled with a fog of white powder, reaching from the ceiling down to my waist. The smoke alarm kept ringing as the dust clouds bellowed out of the windows. My friend E, who lives across the street, let herself in and found me sitting on the gravel in the garden in tears, jabbing at my phone with a shaky finger.

Four minutes later, the flashing blue lights of two huge fire engines turned down my road, their sirens coming to a stop as the men jogged down the road in full kit. They were so lovely, insisting that they checked everything while calming me down and assuring me it was better to overreact and be careful. They found my concern for the ruined food highly amusing and joked that I should call the local Indian for takeaway.

[For reference for those in the UK, I called 101 as I'd put the fire out and wanted advice - they put me through to the fire service (and said I could have called 999 if I wanted). The fire people insisted on coming to check everything - I was very embarrassed when I realised they'd sent so many men but they were so charming and really didn't seem to mind. I was pleased that I had a fire extinguisher and blanket easily accessible on top of my kitchen counter and had installed smoke alarms in my house - it really does make a difference in an emergency, even if this was a small one.]

Thankfully the only damage was the fan hood (it turns on but makes a horrible noise), the pan and some of the food and drink I'd prepared. Luckily I hadn't set out all the food on plates - that was my next job. One of the casualties was a big tray of these marshmallows that I'd prepared so we could roast them in the fireplace. They looked so normal with their extra layer of white powder.

I still had vanilla shortbread and mince pies waiting to be baked in the fridge. I had a few nets of clementines and the remnants of the gingerbread (one tin had been knocked to the floor in the chaos - many reindeer lost their heads and limbs). The cheese (an oozing slice of unpasturised Swiss vacherin, a hunk of manchego and a lovely goat cheese) was well wrapped and the crackers and little squares of quince membrillo I'd made were safe. I still had potatoes to bake, herby salad and some burnt and peeled peppers, along with strong cheddar and some tuna from the cupboard. Sadly I completely forgot to serve the tiny slices of salted caramel and cocoa nib brownie I had stashed in the freezer (though now I get to eat them...). We had enough.

It wasn't perfect. I didn't have time to shower and change, so I spent the party in the old clothes I'd thrown on to clean that morning. The house wasn't too dirty but I hadn't had time to clean properly as we'd been frantically cleaning every single thing in the kitchen to get rid of the powder (which, miraculously, didn't seem to settle elsewhere). The food wasn't as I'd imagined it. But I was safe, as was the house. I made new batches of mulled wine and mulled cider, cracked open some champagne and relaxed. Nobody cared about the details. It was a wonderful, warm evening filled with friends I don't get to see enough - of course it was perfect, in its own memorable way.

My marshmallows always weep. I've tried different recipes, added and subtracted ingredients, but the effect is always the same. I thought I'd nailed it yesterday but low and behold, they wept overnight. You can solve it by dabbing with kitchen paper and letting the cubes dry again on a rack, but it's such a faff and I'm sure there's something I'm not doing right, even though I love the taste and texture.

I haven't included the recipe (just like the first time I made marshmallows) but I'll definitely keep trying and be back soon with a solution. I don't want you to try a recipe I'm not confident about (the archives sometimes keep me awake at night, but that's another story).

I tried steeping crushed cinnamon sticks in the water I used for the syrup. I concentrated it by boiling some of the water off before using it but I still lost the flavour once it had been made into marshmallow. In the end I settled for adding normal ground cinnamon at the end.

They toast beautifully, browning and burning on the outside and liquifying on the inside - so much so that the one above slid the whole way down the stick. They're sticky, satisfying and warm with spice - do try adding cinnamon to your favourite marshmallow recipe. Even if I can't get them just right (yet), homemade marshmallows are always joyful (a bit like parties with good friends).

(And, finally, I quickly whipped the fire guard out for the first and third photos but I usually use it - fire safety!)

A few related posts:
Pomegranate and Berry Pavlova
Almond Brandy Butter
Baked Oatmeal

Thursday 13 December 2012

Father Christmas Gingerbread Cookies

Last Thursday my fridge/freezer died.

This was not appreciated.

It did make me appreciate the cold weather, as the garden became our fridge. As the weather turned even colder a few days ago, it even became a freezer - but sadly not in time to save our frozen food, which, after one last feast, went down with the leaking ship.

The timing wasn't exactly perfect as I'd wanted to make and freeze some things for the the Christmas/Housewarming party I'm throwing on Saturday. I've been overexcited about the party for months - I started a Pinterest board of inspiration a mortifying eleven weeks ago.

Thankfully these gingerbread cookies can be stored at room temperature. However, the dough does needs to be chilled overnight first. I made a second batch of these on the day it broke, so I tucked the wrapped dough into a snap-down Greg-the-squirrel-proof box and put it outside with the milk. The salvageable fridge items followed it outside the next morning and lived there for five days until I finally received the replacement yesterday. I think the delivery men thought I was a bit weird - I guess white goods don't usually inspire such joy.

I first came across moulds like this on Dolcetto Confections. I followed her link and bought this mould from House on the Hill. They're expensive but I fell in love with the idea and figured that it would last for many years to come. (They'd make a great gift for a keen baker if you're looking.)

I like that each print is slightly different - each cookie, especially each face, has its own character.

(When I put these photos through iPhoto, it tried to tag the faces on the cookies. I found this hilarious so I thought I'd share - though it may well be one of those things where you had to be there...)

You can also use this dough to make cookies with a cutter. I used some of this batch of dough to make prints and then stamped out smaller ones from the rest. I rolled them quite thin, so they came out hard. If you prefer soft gingerbread (like the moulded ones) you can roll it thicker.

I really like this recipe - which should come as no surprise, since it's adapted from Tartine. I like that you can use one dough for both hard and soft cookies. I like that they keep very well - I baked these last Friday and they'll still be lovely for the party, eight days later. I like how spicy the dough is, stuffed with ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and cloves, all rounded out by a touch of cocoa powder.

It's my favourite type of Christmas recipe: one I know I will make for years to come.

Moulded Gingerbread Cookies
(Adapted from Tartine by Elizabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson)

For the cookies:
520g plain flour
4 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp cocoa powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp finely ground black pepper
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
225g unsalted butter
190g caster sugar
1 egg
200g black treacle
100g golden syrup

For the glaze:
115g icing sugar
2 tbsp water

In a big bowl, weigh out the flour, ginger, cocoa, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, bicarb and sea salt. Use a whisk to stir until the spices are evenly distributed. In a mixer, beat the butter until it is soft and creamy. Add the sugar and cream until smooth and fluffy. Beat the egg lightly then add half to the bowl. Scrape down then beat until combined. Add the other half of the egg and beat again. Scrape down again and add the treacle and golden syrup (I took the bowl off the mixer and placed it on the scales, then weighed in the syrups - much less mess). Beat until uniform and scrape down. Add the flour mixture and turn the mixer onto its lowest setting until the mixture comes together (a tea towel over the top can help keep the flour in the bowl). Scrape the dough onto a sheet of cling film then wrap tightly and chill overnight.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Take half the dough and roll it out on a well floured surface to a thickness of about a cm. Dust the surface of the dough and the inside of the mould with flour. Place the mould on the dough then press very hard (I stood on a stool to get my body weight behind it). It can help to press the bottom, then middle, then top (or any other series of sections). Carefully lift the mould off the dough. If it hasn't printed all of the details, put the mould back down and press harder. If it rips as you pull it up, place another bit of dough over the rip, dust with flour and print again. Slide a palette knife under the print then use a knife to cut it out. Transfer to a sheet. Repeat until you've finished the dough, re-rolling as needed. You can very gently dust excess flour off the prints with a soft pastry brush if needed.

Place the tray into the oven and bake for 7-12 minutes, depending on the size and thickness. They should start to brown around the edges but still be soft to touch in the middle. While they bake, whisk together the icing sugar and water. Once the cookies have cooled for 2 or 3 minutes on the sheet, carefully transfer them to a wire rack and gently but confidently brush the surface with the glaze. Repeat with any other trays. Leave to cool on the rack then keep in an airtight box for up to 2 weeks.

(Makes different amounts of different sizes... I made 8 big prints then about 35 small thin shapes)

Updated 19/12/16 - Just to reduce the amount of ground cloves a touch. I also tend to now only make cut out thinner shapes - today I got 116 of them out of it. I've also made this as a half recipe a few times, which works well (just weigh half a beaten egg).

A few related posts:
Homemade Granola (good for gifts)
Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls
Clementine Ricotta Doughnuts

Thursday 6 December 2012

Mince Pies v.2

A few weeks ago I was asked by The Everygirl if I'd like to write a piece about one of my favourite festive recipes. Without a moment of hesitation, I chose mince pies.

Back in 2010, I posted recipes for our mincemeat and mince pies.  Homemade mincemeat is genuinely one of my favourite things to eat. In a pie, on a spoon - I don't care. It's completely different from the stuff you can buy. For the piece I reshot the photos and adapted the recipes into cups. Other than that I didn't change too many things, so the original posts still stand for gram measurements (though the mincemeat is a half batch in the feature, I used a few dried cranberries and I added the brandy at the beginning).

You can read the feature here - it also includes recipes from the lovely ladies at Sprinkle Bakes, Butter me up, Brooklyn!, Channeling Contessa and Ever Hungry.

While I was writing up the recipe, an idea kept niggling at me: shortbread instead of pastry. After I'd sent it in, I adapted my Whole Vanilla Bean Shortbread recipe and gave it a go. It was such a success that I wandered around the house for about an hour with a big grin on my face. I used to think that a rich pastry would be too much. It's not.

Of course, when I googled it, I discovered that it's a totally normal variation. But still. Best mince pies I've ever made.

Shortbread Mince Pies

50g cold unsalted butter
25g caster sugar
65g plain flour
pinch of sea salt
Approx 5 tbsp homemade mincemeat

Cut four thin strips of baking parchment and place them across the bottom of four cups in a muffin tin, making sure the ends reach up to the top of the sides (like a ribbon to take out a battery). Place the butter and sugar into a food processor and blend until you have a paste (you could also beat it in a stand mixer, but be careful not to overwork it). Add the flour and pinch of salt and pulse until the mixture has combined and starts to form tiny clumps. Divide the mixture between the cups then press into the walls and bottom as evenly as you can. Neaten up the top with a knife if you like - you can use any extra to make decorations. Place in the fridge and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 160C/320F. Spoon about 3-4 teaspoons of mincemeat into each cup. Bake for 16-18 minutes until the shortbread is golden brown and the mincemeat is bubbling. Leave in the tin to cool for five minutes them use the strips to pull them out of the tin. Serve warm with plenty of cream.

(Makes 4, easily scaled up)

A few related posts:
Bûche de Noël
Quick Christmas Fruit Cake
Stollen Wreaths