Monday, December 20, 2010

Turning into the Christmas Grinch

The pork is ordered, the Jersey Bennes are bought, and the pudding is in the fridge. But just in case anyone out there was under the illusion that Everything is Going Jolly Well around here, here's the naked truth.
  • Thanks to the humid weather we've been having in Wellington, plus my lack of common sense in not putting half of them in the fridge, the expensive box of beautiful cherries I bought for Harvey at Moore Wilson last week is starting to Go Off. So tonight I'll have to poach what's left in red wine, which was not what I had wanted to do at all.
  • On Saturday, after my third trip to the shops, I had a meltdown and started shouting about Having to Do It All. Which was not nice, as I know perfectly well that what Harvey would like most in the world is to be able to do what he used to do for Christmas, from buying presents to cooking the dinner.
  • I have long known that Sellotape and me do not mix. Now I've proved very firmly that cellophane and me don't mix either. Besides, it lets you see what's inside, spoiling the fun of opening the present. Next year I'll remember this, I hope.
  • The only advantage of Harvey's illness is that as he can't get up the stairs, I can leave everything up here in a mess. The spare room is currently strewn with the remains of my card-making efforts, ends of wrapping paper, discarded cellophane (see above), the year's store of ribbons and bows (for recycling), assorted half-used sheets of stick-on gift tags left over from last year (some no longer stick and most of the rest are too naff or cutesy to use for anyone), and (hiding somewhere underneath all this) the scissors, the sticky tape and the pen. Oh, and the presents (other than the ones I've already dispatched to friends and rellies).

And once again I have failed to produce anything like the number of delicious, impressive home-made Christmas gifts I had intended to make. Even the hamper for my sister had nothing home-made in it, except the card.  One person - one! - is getting some macaroons. That's it.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Making French macaroons, sort of

Strictly speaking they're macarons, but they're called macaroons in the latest Dish, which has a ridiculously perfect plate of them on the cover. So I bought it, thinking that now was the time to get together with my friend Amy and have a go at making them. She can't eat gluten, and when we went to France together four years ago, we used to buy them and take them back to our hotel for an afternoon snack (though they weren't as good as the ones I had in Melbourne). And I knew they were supposed to be difficult, so I figured two heads and pairs of hands would be better than one. We had a lot of fun.

Raspberry Parisian Macaroons - adapted slightly from Dish 33, December 2010-January 2011

100g free range egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
2 tbsps caster sugar
1-2 tsps raspberry essence
red food colouring
140g ground almonds
220g icing sugar

Preheat oven to 150C (though as the macaroons have to stand so long before cooking, you can do this later).
Whisk egg whites and cream of tartar to soft peaks in a large bowl, using an electric beater.
Add caster sugar, raspberry essence and a few tiny drops of red food colouring.
(They say the colour will fade during cooking, so you want a deepish pink, but we slightly overdid it with our first batch. Still, the French ones were quite deep pink too.)

In another large bowl, sift the ground almonds and icing sugar together, and add any almonds that haven't gone through the sieve. (Not sure about this - I think it could be best to sieve the almonds first separately, then weigh the sifted ones to get 140g - that way it might be easier to get smoother macaroons. Or better, do as Mrs Cake suggests (see below) and grind the almonds again in the processor with the icing sugar.)

Using a large metal spoon, fold the almonds and icing sugar mix into the egg whites until well combined.
(They say not to worry about losing volume as the mixture should not be too light and airy. But ours didn't rise as much as we thought they would, so we might have overdone this slightly.)

The next step is the tricky one. The recipe says:
Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1.5cm wide plain piping nozzle. Pipe small rounds, about 3 cm apart,
onto baking trays lined with baking paper.

This might work fine with a proper piping bag, but we didn't have one. We tried using a plastic bag with the corner cut off, but it didn't work very well, and we thought far too much mixture got wasted - it really sticks to the bag. (And how small? About 2 cm across - we made them too big at first.)

So then we just used two teaspoons to make small rounds instead, which was much easier. We certainly didn't get the perfect smoothness of the ones in the picture - but could any home cook get this, I wonder? If anyone's done it, please let me know.

The bottom far left one is really round and pretty smooth...

Drop the trays a couple of times on the bench to get rid of any air bubbles and flatten the macaroons slightly.
(It was fun doing this but we still didn't get rid of all the bubbles.)

Leave for 45-50 minutes until a good skin has formed on top of the macaroons.
(They say "This is an integral part of the recipe. Without this step they will not have the distinctive smooth tops." We did it, but they still weren't smooth. If you haven't put the oven on yet, do it now.)

Bake the trays, one at a time, for 12-14 minutes (in my underpowered oven, 16 was better). Leave for 5 minutes before gently transferring to a cooling rack. (We just transferred the whole sheet of paper to the rack with macaroons still on it, and took them off later - this worked very well.)

What we were most proud of was that they all had the mark of a true macaroon - that distinctive little "foot" around the bottom (though it didn't actually stick out all round the way it did on the Melbourne ones, but never mind, there it was).

What you sandwich them together with depends on how authentic you want to be. Dish suggests butter icing, and gives the recipe (I think there should be an incentive to buy it, since we've made so much use of it, so I'm not going to copy the filling recipe here - you get a free calendar and drinks booklet with this issue too). I've seen a fiendishly long French recipe for a proper creme filling. Or you could have a look at Mrs Cake's blog - her macaron recipe (avert your eyes from her foray into, er, distinctive colouring) is similar but includes some useful extra information, and her filling recipe has an egg and an egg yolk in it - handy, since you'll have some to use up. But it requires a candy thermometer and I haven't got one of those either...

Anyway, our first ever "Parisian macaroons" have gone down really well with me and the people I've offered them to so far. They have a distinctive texture, crunchy, chewy and melting all at once. Next time I think I'll try making vanilla and coffee ones, maybe with some Nutella in the filling.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Gingerbread in the house

Friends have begun dropping in for pre-Christmas visits, and we're really enjoying seeing them. But this also means I need to have something good in the tins to offer them.
               The traditional offering is Christmas cake, but I have to confess I've never made one. The boys, of course, would happily devour any kind of cake. Chris loved it, so I was grateful that his mother Marion made a small test cake each year, then gave it to us. We would get a slab of my mother's cake as well. Marion's was beautifully traditional, dark and fruity. Mum had this persistent delusion that sherry was just as good as expensive brandy, and she threw in generous sploshes of it, so hers tended to be paler and rather damp - though it was good heated up a bit, with custard.
         As I've said before, I'm no baker, and bought baking is either really expensive or not very nice. Or else it tastes okay until you read the label and realise it's full of strange numbered substances and nasty cheap butter substitutes, such as palm oil and beef fat.
          So last year I was really pleased with myself for coming up with the idea of gingerbread. I had a great recipe from my New Plynouth friend Beth that I'd never tried. It was perfectly simple and worked beautifully, producing deliciously sticky, spicy, fragrant gingerbread that kept well through the Christmas visiting season. And apart from the ones who couldn't eat anything with flour in, everyone liked it, including Harvey - ginger is one of his favourite flavours. Given a choice between Christmas cake and gingerbread, he'll go for the gingerbread every time.
          I made it again this week. The mixture is, as Beth warned me, extremely wet, but don't let that worry you.  It just takes quite a while to cook. I used two loaf tins this year, giving me deep slices which work well cut in half. On the whole people seem to prefer having two (or more) small pieces than one (or more) big ones, and it's a bit crumbly, so smaller slices are easier to manage. You'll see that mine sank a bit in the middle - I probably took it out of the oven a bit too soon. But it still tasted really good.

Esther's gingerbread
(via Beth - Esther is quiltmaker Esther Woollaston, who has also worked for Ruth Pretty).

280g (2 cups) plain flour
200g (1 cup) brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2-3 dessert spoons of powdered ginger (I used 2 and a half, whcih seems about right)
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
360g (1 and 1/3 cups) golden syrup
225g butter (roughly diced)
2 eggs
250ml (1 cup) milk

* Preheat oven to 150C. Line a 23 cm square tin or two loaf tins with baking paper (I folded mine double). To get a gingerbread which is less deep, and is very nice cut into square chunks, you can use a rectangular tin instead, or even a roasting dish.
* Sift the flour into a large bowl, together with the brown sugar, baking soda and baking powder, and all the spices. Stir lightly to mix.
* In a small saucepan, melt the butter and golden syrup together.
* Lightly beat the 2 eggs.
* Add the golden syrup and butter mixture to the dry ingredients, followed by the eggs and the milk.
* Combine everything well, using a wire whisk, and pour into prepared tin(s). The mixture will be very wet.

* The original recipe says to bake it for at least 45 minutes for one square tin, and at least an hour for two loaf tins. For the rectangular tin, I give it 40 minutes on bake, then another 15 minutes on fan bake.
* Bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. 
* Leave in tin(s) to cool for at least 30 minutes before turning out.
* When completely cool, place in an airtight tin or plastic box.

I like a milkless cup of spiced chai tea with this, but it's good with coffee too.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A fringe of leaves

The first time I ever ate artichokes was in Albania. They're wonderful things, so beautifully shaped, and it feels so decadent eating them - delicately nibbling off the bottom of each leaf until you get to the succulent heart.
       Last week my friend Lesley and I had lunch with Ali at Eastbourne. She's a great gardener and has a magnificent row of artichokes, and she cooked them for lunch.

       You can do them in a pressure cooker for about 20-30 minutes, depending on size and age, or just boil them steadily in a large covered saucepan for 40-50 minutes, until an outer leaf pulls off easily, and when you push a sharp knife or skewer down into the heart, it feels soft
        The small ones early in the season take less time, but Ali says she tends to leave them till they're bigger - the leaves are a bit tougher, but there's more favour, and more heart.  And she always washes them well first, to get rid of any passengers - "finding a cooked earwig on the leaf you're about to eat is not nice".
         The best thing to have with them is garlic butter: melt what looks like a suitable quantity, and add crushed garlic to taste, some black pepper, a squeeze of lemon and a dash of olive oil (not extra virgin) to make it a bit less rich. Mayonnaise is good too.