Friday, 22 January 2010

Experiments With Purple

Made a fruit loaf using this recipe, but substituted frozen cherries, smoked prunes and a spoonful of blueberry jam in place of the bananas. I also used some vanilla soy milk and a tiny splash of ginger wine, instead of the coffee I used in the earlier recipe. The insides of the loaf were a lovely shade of purple, and it was great toasted, with some Nutella on top.

Red cabbage casserole, with grated cheese on top. Yes, it really was that violent shade of purple. May not be the prettiest dish around, but it was hella tasty.

Used a couple of leaves from the red cabbage to dye some white crochet cotton, and it came out this lovely shade of pale blue. My earlier experiments using vegetable matter to dye stuff can be seen here. I always get a little surprised when picking them out of the dye bath, as the colours are never really what I expect them to be.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

A Doll's Macarons

Macarons have been floating around the interwubs for a while now, haven't they? My own macarons have been nearly a year in the making - I first decided to try baking my own a year ago, when I was back in Sydney for the summer.Those plans soon got shelved after I came back to London, and two new flatmates moved in. They were stereotypically bad housemates - filthy, inconsiderate, noisy, and really bad cooks (sweetcorn in EVERYTHING! Argghhhhh!). Things got so bad that I pretty much locked myself in my room when I knew they were home, only emerging to run to the loo or grab a hurried bite. I hated having awkward, forced conversations with them, and hated cooking anything when I knew they were home, or would be coming home soon, because I didn't want them to mess up my dishes, or get dust over my newly iced cupcakes.
But that filthy fool and his shrill harridan of a wife finally moved out last month, and since then, I have been baking and cooking with renewed vigour, making up for lost time. Now that we've cleaned the kitchen, I'm finally ready to invest some time and energy into attempting macarons.

I should thank Henrik Ibsen for first sparking my interest in these fragile jewel-toned delights. We had to  study A Doll's House way back when in sixth-form drama class (a whole decade ago!). His 'childish' protagonist Nora had a predilection for 'macaroons'. Our class of rather naive young ladies were told by our drama teachers that Ibsen meant those biscuity, coconuty things  - which, for some reason, struck me as very odd, more so than anything else about that play, or even that class. Sure, macaroons are sweet, and when done correctly, are tasty enough that I could eat more than one. But I just didn't understand why Nora Helmer would be obsessed with these brown, rather plain biscuits, over any other kind of pastry, or anything else, for that matter. Isn't it funny when one tiny, almost insignificant point like that leads to you not understanding the play at all?

A few months later (way after we had finished A Doll's House and moved on to some other play), I saw a photograph of some macarons, and realised that these had to be what Ibsen meant, and the play finally fell into place for me. It made sense to me that macarons - those rainbow-hued, light as air confections with their almost hidden, sweet centre) would be Nora's secret little indulgence, but my teachers hadn't really bothered about what they were, they could have been any kind of biscuits, for all they cared - which initially ruined my understanding of the whole play. sum up, some teachers are crap. (I'm restraining myself from having a rant about teachers, since this post is supposed to be about baking and not about school.)
Well, anyway, this post is supposed to be about my macarons, not school or bad housemates. I got the recipe for the macaron shells from this Serious Eats article, although I may try some other recipes in future. The filling was a simple lime and lemon curd, with the sourness of the curd helping to offset the intense sugary burst of the shells.

Lime-Lemon Curd
4 egg yolks
1 heaped tsp cornflour
3 limes, juiced
1 lemon, juiced
some zest
150 gm unsalted butter
250 gm caster sugar

- Melt butter in a double boiler (you can make one by popping a glass bowl over a pot of water), then mix in zest, juices, sugar and cornflour, and stir till sugar has dissolved.
- Beat egg yolks lightly, then sieve into mixture.
- Stir for 7-9 minutes, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Remove from heat, pour into a sterilised jar and let it cool down. It will thicken even more as it cools down, and you can then keep it in the fridge for about 2 weeks.

These are the very first macarons I've ever made, so I must confess I was a little nervous prior to starting them. I'd read all the horror stories about 'feet' not appearing, too many air bubbles in shells, and everything else that can and will go wrong when preparing these delicate things. So I was surprised when I achieved the much-craved for 'feet', although my piping skills do leave much to be desired. I got bored with carefully piping out tiny little circles, so the last couple of batches I did consisted of huge discs - some of them were almost 2 inches across!

Lookswise, they probably need quite a lot of surgery before I can produce anything resembling the Crayola-coloured confections of Laduree et al. However, I was pretty happy with how they tasted. The shells were crispy on the outside, leading to a soft, sweet inner bit, and the sourness of the curd helped balance the sweetness of the shells. I'll be attempting more macarons soon (we'll need to finish up our current batch first) and I'll even attempt to add some colouring to them next time. 

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Shiny Two Shoes

My late Christmas present to myself - the Wrestlemania boots from Irregular Choice. I had to get them as soon as I glimpsed them on the website, if only because they reminded me of Mexican wrestling outfits. And Fag Panic.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Hello Lover...

It was bound to happen - how could I resist the charms of these plump, juicy little nubbins? My affection for them is so absolute that I spent the greater part of my weekend bringing about 100 of these delicious morsels to life...before spending the last three evenings consuming them, one by one.

Others may talk about superfoods, and molecular gastronomy, but to my love-addled mind, nothing beats a good dumpling (or a whole plateful) on a cold winter night. Juicy innards of meat, prawns, mushrooms, and onions encased in a chewy, fried/steamed case - all your major food groups in one bite. My only initial worry was that the Manpoppet wouldn't appreciate my love for these little stuffed pockets, but I needn't have worried, for his passion has almost exceeded mine.

I can't say that mine are the best little dumplings in the world, but they satisfy my hunger, keep me warm, and best of all, bring a smile to my face. Here's my recipe, if you'd like some little lovers of your own -

300 gms all-purpose flour
100 gms rice flour
pinch of salt
just boiled water

500 gms pork mince
160 gms prawns, minced
4 spring onions
2 medium onions
100 gms chestnut mushrooms
100 gms wild mushrooms
knob of ginger
6 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil

Makes...quite a lot - it depends how large you make the skins and how stuffed you make them.

- Prepare your filling. Mince all the ingredients, then start frying the onions in some cooking oil (NOT the sesame oil) till they just start getting translucent. Add in the garlic and ginger, then add the mushrooms and pork. Mix in some soy sauce and sesame oil for flavour. When the meat is nearly cooked, add in the prawns, they don't need to cook for long, and you don't really want them too rubbery.

- Leave the filling aside to cool, and start preparing the dough for the skins.

- Mix both flours together with a pinch of salt, and added just boiled water to the mixture a little at a time, mixing constantly with a wooden spoon. Be careful not to add too much water, as you don't want the dough to be too wet. Knead the dough till it's smooth and slightly elastic, then leave it in a bowl to rest, covered with a tea-towel to prevent it drying out.

- Once the filling is cool enough to handle by hand, start rolling the dough out onto a floured surface. Roll the dough out in batches, so the rest of the dough doesn't dry out too much. You want to roll them out thin enough so you're not just chewing on dough, but not so thin that they burst as soon as you fill them. Mine were about 2-3 mm thick. Start cutting the skins out with a 3-inch wide biscuit cutter or suitable implement.

- Fill the skins with the filling, then press the edges firmly together to prevent the inside bursting when you cook them. You can pleat them if you're good enough with your fingers, I left mine unpleated. It helps to put a dab of water on the edges to help them stick together if you find the dough too dry.

- Now, all you need to do is cook them and eat them! If you've made way too many, like I did, you can freeze them. I kept mine in an old ice-cream tub, between layers of greaseproof paper so they don't stick together. You can also make a dipping sauce for them.

Dipping Sauce
1 tbsp sweetened rice vinegar
2 tbsps light soy sauce
bit of ginger
2 small bird's eye chillies

- Mince the ginger and slice up the chillies, and leave them in a little bowl. Add the vinegar and soy sauce. Dip, and enjoy!

There are several ways of cooking the dump-de-dumps. You can steam them in a steamer (healthy option), fry or deepfry them (not that healthy), boil them in stock, water or soup, or - my favourite method - add a little cooking oil to a frying pan (non-stick ones work much better in this case) and fry them for a minute, then add enough water to cover them, and steam them in the pan till all the water evaporates. This way, you can crunchy little golden fried bits on the bottom, with the juiciness of steaming.

And of course, the beauty of dumplings is that they are infinitely, easily modifiable. You can increase the size of the skins to make giant fist-sized versions (like Uzbek manti), fill them with fruits (like Polish pierogi), or make up your own versions. I'm thinking of making ice-cream filled versions, encased in some sort of sweet dough...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Winner, Not Wiener!

Congratulations, Liesl of Hoppo Bumpo! You're the winner of my giveaway, and I'll be in touch soon for your mailing address. The granny square bunting will be winging its' way to you shortly, along with a selection of other goodies!
Thank you to everyone else who entered, I'm sorry I don't have enough granny square buntings to giveaway to all of you. I'll be holding more giveaways in future, so stay tuned for more exciting prizes!

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Bigos And Banana Bread Baking Bonanza

No, not bigos-banana bread - because that would be disgusting. At least, I think it would, but I haven't actually tried that combination yet, so who knows, eh? What I actually baked this past Sunday evening were bigos and cheese muffins, and a banana loaf.

The banana loaf was inspired by Loumm's tempting banana, cinnamon and walnut loaf recipe. I substituted some coffee for the milk used in the original recipe, and used some mixed nuts instead of just walnuts - the whole thing came out delicious, if I do say so myself.

The bigos muffins, on the other hand, came about as an answer to the question "Where else can I hide some bigos?"

That Manpoppet of mine was gripped by an insatiable craving for massive amounts of hunters' stew on the weekend, and cooked up a great big monster of stewed cabbages and meats on Saturday. I'm not exaggerating when I call it a 'great big monster' - that baby weighed about 5kgs!

Faced with the terrifying thought of eating only bigos for the next fortnight, I had a quick look around the kitchen, and whipped up some of this little muffin monsters.

350 gm plain flour
1 tsp bicarbonate soda
1 tsp baking powder
100 gm butter
300 ml milk
1 egg, beaten
300 gm bigos
200 gm grated cheese

Makes about 12 medium muffins.

- Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

- Sift flour into a mixing bowl, then rub butter into flour.

- Mix milk and egg into flour mixture.

- Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix in the bigos and grated cheese. I used Edam as it was the only one I had in my fridge at the time, but it would be interesting to try some softer ones like mozzarella or even Brie in the future.

- Spoon the mixture into a lightly greased muffin tray. You can fill them all the way to the top, as the mixture doesn't rise too much during baking.

- Bake in the oven for 20 to 30 minutes. Stick a skewer through the middle of a muffin (or a butter knife if you're like me and aren't organised enough to have skewers), they're done when the skewer comes out clean. There may be some melted cheese clinging on to the skewer though, so as long as there's no floury stuff clinging to your skewer, you're good to go!

* Bigos - we made ours, but you can find them in jars at supermarkets and Polish grocers. So, there's no need for you to go to all that trouble making 5kg of stew just to make these muffins.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Quinces For Princes

Ok, I've been tardy with posting a recipe for the quince pies I made for Christmas, but here it is, at last! It's a fairly easy recipe, and everything can be thrown together quickly once you've poached the quinces. If quinces can't be found, or you just can't be bothered with them, then I don't see why you can't substitute them for some other fruits.

1 kg quinces (about 3 or 4)
4 small apples (I used Braeburns, but use whichever ones you like)
1 kg puff pastry
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp nutmeg
2 heaped tbs sugar/honey
1 egg, beaten
200 gms apricot glaze (optional)

Makes about 24 individual pies.
- Cut quinces up into quarters and remove the seeds.

- There are two different ways to soften the quinces - the way is to poach them in a large amount of water (enough to just cover the tops of the fruits), with spices added for taste. I ended up with about 2 pints of lovely pink fruit-flavoured liquid at the end, and simply added some gelatin to it to make quince jelly.
The other method is similar, except you use less water - put the quinces and spices into a large pot or saucepan, then add an inch of water to it.
Whichever method you choose, you'll need to simmer it for at least two hours. Stir them occasionally to prevent them sticking to the bottom and burning.

- After one hour, quarter the apples and add them to the pot, and simmer for another hour.

- Test the fruits after two hours, they should be soft enough to mash with a fork. If not, cook them for a little longer.

- If you're poaching the fruits, remove them from the liquid and leave to cool and drain for at least 15 minutes. If you're using the second method, the liquid should have evaporated and been absorbed by the fruits by now.

- Mash the fruits up roughly, you want some texture when you bite into the pies. I found it easiest to just use a potato masher.

- Cut and place puff pastry into muffin trays (be sure to leave enough pastry for the tops). Spoon the fruit mixture in, then cut more puff pastry circles for the tops. Brush the tops with a beaten egg.

Bake in a preheated oven for the time and temperature specified on your puff pastry packaging - I think I left them in for about 20 mins at about 200 degrees Celsius.

- Leave them to cool on a rack once they're done.

- This step is entirely optional, I did it because I always overindulge my sweet tooth. Put some apricot glaze in a saucepan and boil it, then, with a brush, brush it over the tops of the pies for a shiny finish.

That's about it, and like I said, really easy to assemble once the fruits are cooked. If you're pressed for time, you can always cook the quinces a couple of days before, then spoon them into the pastry cases and bake them on the day itself. The pies can be kept for up to a week if stored properly, and they're delicious reheated in the microwave, with a dollop of vanilla bean ice-cream over it.

As I haven't had too much experience with writing up my own recipes, please do let me know if you spot any mistakes in this one. And if you do use it, I'd love to hear how you got on with it!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Now Here's The Sun, It's Alright...

The Mancreature and I traipsed off to the wee town of Betws-y-Coed in Wales recently for a short break from being digitised superheroes (I play Thor, by the way). He wanted to take the computer along but I had a little yell about how "we're supposed to be on holiday, you're not supposed to work on holiday!"

Betws-y-Coed is one of those ridiculously picturesque little towns with lots of nature all around - mossy green woods, babbling waterfalls, sheep roaming in fields, and cute little stone buildings. We had to hop on a tiny, one-carriage train to get to the town, it was so cute! Everything was so pretty, but also slightly creepy. Maybe it was because almost every shop we saw was either an outdoor shop selling lots of Goretex, or a touristy shop selling lots of tat with 'Cymru' emblazoned on it.

This weird fake clown tree trunk person right outside our breakfast room also added to the creepy-small-town factor. They sacrifice children underneath it.

We ate a lot, saw some waterfalls, hiked through some woods, and watched a lot of TV.

How to perform eye surgery on an egg.

Huge hot chocolate

Cafe in a converted train carriage.
And just to make it a truly memorable holiday, I got stuck in a cafe toilet, and was yelling and banging on the door for ages, but no one came *sad face*. Turns out the groups of people that were eating in the section near the toilets had left just after I went in, and the music was fairly loud, so no one heard my pleas for help at all. I finally managed to shove the door open, and told the Mancreature that I was stuck in the toilet, only for him to reply: "I know, but I just wanted to listen to radio."

Friday, 1 January 2010

Christmas Colours

Christmas celebrations invariably involve eating your own body weight through a mountain of food, and I certainly did my part this year. Christmas Eve dinner was held at A+B's cosy flat in East London, where we proceeded to slowly but steadily work our way through a 12-course Polish dinner. The Mancreature tells me that it's traditional for Polish families to stuff their faces with 12 different dishes during Christmas dinner, so we took that as an excuse to eat til we nearly threw up.

I made up a tower of quince pies and lots of little Russian tea cakes to add to the party, while the Mancreature made little dumplings called uzska - little ears - and also roasted a great big hunk of beef. Turns out we needn't have brought those items, as there was more than enough food awaiting our rather late entrance.

We stuffed our greedy maws with plenty of pierogi, beetroot soup, bigos, marinated herrings, lots of sausages  and at least  four different cakes. In fact, there was so much food that we ended up having to take a half hour break halfway through the meal before we could go on and finish all 12 dishes. The Mancreature nearly ended up in a coma at the end of it, but that's because he didn't listen to my advice - just keep eating, and don't listen to your gut!

I know I'd promised to write up my recipe for quince pies before, but you'll just have to wait a little longer before I get round to doing it. I used this recipe for the biscuits, but omitted the icing sugar dusting and got creative with some chocolate-flavoured icing instead. It's currently one of my favourite biscuit recipes, as it takes hardly any time to mix up, and I've also discovered that the resulting biscuits keep fairly well too.

The next day - Christmas Day - was spent lazing around in our pyjamas, playing computer games and making more mushroom-filled uszkas! This time, I had the 'brilliant' idea of adding red and green food colouring to the dough, to produce a batch of Christmas-coloured dumplings. They looked like little embryos, but were so tasty right out of a hot water bath, with a little lot of butter slathered over them.  Lots of things taste great covered in butter...I love butter!

We didn't make them to a specific recipe, but you if'd like to try them out, here's a fairly simple one. Ours were stuffed with wild Polish mushrooms and onions, but I don't see why you can't stuff them with other ingredients if you feel like it. Once you've cooked them, you can keep them for a couple of days in the fridge, although we finished ours almost immediately. All 52 little ears.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all have a great 2010!