The Chocolate Box

The Chocolate Box
            When I was at home I rediscovered chocolate making. Many reasons, mostly a lack of funds for any real presents for people (plus let’s be honest people always tend to prefer homemade gifts for some reason). So for the final two weeks before uni I turned are kitchen into a pseudo-chocolate factory, completely monopolising one of the surfaces and the entire fridge. The brilliant thing about making chocolates is that once you’ve mastered the basics it is remarkably simple and easy, yet people seem to be incredibly impressed with what you produce, just invest in some good chocolate moulds and that is pretty much all you need.
Simple Ganache
2 parts dark chocolate to 1 part cream (e.g 100g chocolate, 50ml double cream). Heat the cream with an infusion of your choice (have sometimes ranged from earl grey to black pepper) then pour over the chocolate that has been chopped, leave for a minute, then stir to combine. You should be left with a smooth combination.
                                                    
To fill a chocolate mould
Fill each mould up to the top with chocolate and flatten the tops with a palate knife, then turn upside down and tap the top (you can do this into a bowl if you have a wide enough bowl or if, like me, you don’t, just use a piece of greaseproof paper, the chocolate with set and you can reuse it). Then scrape the top again with a palate knife for a clean finish.
To finish
Fill the moulds with the ganache leaving a rim around the edge, leave to set. Spread a layer of chocolate over the top, scraping round the sides of each mould.
Few important details
       white chocolate ganache will always need more chocolate to cream ratio than dark or milk
       I like to use a freezer to set each stage because I’m inpatient
       If you want to use a liquid flavour (orange juice/alcohol etc) reduce the amount of cream and replace with the liquid (for juices reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency but not for alcohol unless you want a boozefree hit)
       You can stir in crunch/ other textures into the ganache for new layers
       Praline/ peanut butter can be mixed with chocolate on its own to create a thicker ganache filling
       To put decoration on top the best way is to paint the bottom of the mould
       Caramel is another winner usually. Boil sugar and liquid glucose to amber colour with some salt, straight away add a dash of cream and a  knob of butter, then leave to cool a little before putting in the moulds.
– water is the enemy BUT if you do get some water in your chocolate, the best deal is to add fat, so oil or melted butter and hopefully your pro blame will be solved
Some of my biggest successes have either been simple (earl grey, salted caramel) or themed (biscuit box, Christmas inspired) or even just boozy, I also like using herbs and spices mixed with sweet flavours like raspberry/wasabi (using real raspberry pulp for intense flavour). This years selection seemed to go down rather well anyway. 
  
                                                                 


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BFG (black forest gateaux)

Another Fat Duck Recipe that is absolutely amazing is the BFG (black forest gateaux not big friendly giant FYI). This is the piece de resistance of the tasting menu and it is beautiful. It probably takes around 8hrs to make start to finish and involves some of the most wonderful fat duck techniques, the aerator, chocolate spray gun, liquid nitrogen ice cream plus a few more classical ones, maceration, chocolate sponge, cut vanilla pod…… unusually Heston uses quite a few classic flavours, essential a black forest gateaux inside out. So you have a core of aerated dark chocolate and a macerated cherry and a layer of chocolate sponge doused in kirsch liqueur.  Then surrounding that you have dark chocolate mousse, around that you have a white chocolate mousse, and then the base is the most amazing praline crunch. This is then all sprayed with tiny particles of dark chocolate for a furry effect (better than it sounds) and then topped with a second macerated cherry with a vanilla pod slice stuck in the top to look like a stalk (I know attention to detail) all served with a heavenly unsweetened kick of kirsch ice cream to cut through that amazing richness. All the flavours of a BFG without that I think I may throw up clogginess you get after eating it. On top of all this there is a trail of chocolate ‘soil’ and cherry sauce. J

HESTON’S VERSION

It is intricately amazing and when you chop into it you can’t imagine the effect of all the different textures and flavours – so goooood. Interesting fact about Michelin dessert techniques – they tend to freeze everything (mousses, chocolates, biscuits ) until serving so that you can get the shape right and get it neatly onto the plate plus ensure nothing melts

BFG (my version)


Ingredients (serves 6)
Macerated Cherries
10  cherries, de stoned
200g sugar
150ml kirsch
Almond base
60g blanched almonds
100g 75% dark chocolate
50g white chocolate
25g butter
35g ground almonds
Kirsch Ganache
100g 75% dark chocolate
100ml double cream
50ml kirsch
Chocolate sponge
3 eggs
60g sugar
20g cornflour
20g plain flour
20g cocoa powder
White Chocolate Mousse
150ml double cream
1 egg yolk
45g sugar
100g white chocolate
50ml kirsch
Dark Chocolate Mousse
75ml double cream
½ egg yolk
20g sugar
50g dark 60% chocolate
To Serve
Dark chocolate aero
Cocoa powder
50g 100% dark chocolate
20g ground almonds
1 vanilla pod
Kirsch ice cream (if poss)


1.     For the macerated cherries, heat the sugar in a pan with 150ml water and reduce to a thin syrup consistency. Leave the cherries steeping in it for at least 5hours.
2.     For the base, roast the almonds in a dry frying pan over a high heat till toasted. Then chop to small pieces.  Melt the chocolates and butter in a microwave. Meanwhile place the ground almonds on a baking sheet and roast in the oven for 3mins at 200oC, making sure not to burn. Mix the almonds into the chocolate mix and spread on a baking sheet, place in the fridge to set.
3.     For the ganache, chop the chocolate into very fine pieces. Heat the cream in a pan to the point of boiling but don’t boil. pour over the chocolate and leave for 1min then combine with the kirsch. Pour into a shallow lined pan and place in the freezer.
4.     For the sponge, whisk the eggs together, and then whisk in the sugar till light and frothy. Fold in the flours and cocoa and place in a ined baking tray, bake at 170oC (150oC fan) for 15mins. When removed from the oven, soak using a little of the syrup the cherries have been soaking in.
5.     When the Ganache has frozen, cut out squares of the almond base and place in square individual moulds. Cut out smaller squares of the ganache, sponge and dark chocolate aero (all same size) place in centre of almond base, top with a cherry and refrigerate.
6.     For the mousse, whip the cream and kirsch to soft peaks and set aside. Then whisk the egg yolks and sugar together. Melt the white chocolate in the microwave, then fold in the egg mix and cream mix, pour into the square moulds so it encases the ganache, cake, aero and cherry, freeze.
7.     For the dark mousse, whip the cream to soft peaks and set aside. Then whisk the egg yolks and sugar together. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, then fold in the egg mix and cream mix. Layer on top of the frozen white chocolate mousse, freexe, placing a lollipop stick in the centre.
8.     To serve, remove the BFGs from the moulds then freeze again. Meanwhile grate the 100%chocolate and toast the ground almonds as before. Leave the almonds to cool completely, then mix with the chocolate. Remove the BFGs then dust with cocoa powder, sieved. Freeze again. When ready to serve, remove from the freezer 5-10mins before, remove the lollipop stick. Put the remaining cherry syrup in a piping bag. Dust a little of the 100% chocolate almond mix onto the place like soil and top with the BFG, on the left side. Squeeze a little syrup into the central hole and squeeze a little more down one corner (if need be, thicken the syrup by reducing further). Slice the vanilla pod finely to resemble cherry stalks. Place a cherry on top of the hole on the BFG and stick a cherry vanilla stalk in. Serve with a quenelle of kirsch ice cream on the right side. 

Crème Fraiche takes centre stage

Crème Fraiche takes centre stage
It gets to a point when you have been cooking for your parents through your teenage years that you realise when you leave for university; it’s not you who might be unable to survive but your parents. Occasionally I wonder if I should have weaned them off my cooking gently so as to prevent occasions such as the time my dad had to send his secretary out for a croissant because inexplicably the cereal wasn’t on the table for breakfast and he had no idea where we kept it. My mother is semi-domesticated, she has a talent for washing and ironing (at which I am abysmal), unloading and loading the dishwasher, boiling eggs and making coffee, but I am not sure she knows how to grocery shop after years of my sister and I taking control. You would think that shopping online would be simple, but having learnt the basics of technology (we taught her how to make animated PowerPoint’s a while ago), Internet shopping may be one technological step too far. I have taken to picking up food on the way home from university just to make sure I have something for breakfast the next day having come home too many times to an empty fridge save a little mouldy cheese and a bottle of salad dressing we can’t seem to shift. It’s no wonder the fridge has started leaking, I expect it’s feeling unloved. To be fair to my parents they both have jobs where lunch is provided and dinner is quite often offered too. There will come a time where they will need to cook for themselves (well unless I really fail in life and am living at home at the age of 30), which is hopefully where this blog will come in handy.
Once again I am staring into the fridge hoping for a little inspiration when my mum enters the kitchen. ‘I was so pleased to see you bought crème fraiche I really like crème fraiche. When you weren’t here we had some with jacket potatoes’ she states proudly, before promptly walking out of the kitchen. ‘I’m off to finish writing the book’. (I would just like to say that she did indeed finish the book that evening, so this dish was celebratory). There I have it, my inspiration, Crème Fraiche. Not usually the central component of a dish so I routed around in the freezer for something a little more focused. I find prawns and peas and decide that this was all coming together nicely. Add the remainder of those damn endless preserved lemons and you have a prawn, pea, lemon, crème fraiche risotto.
So I fried garlic in a large chunk of butter, throw in a bay leaf, salt, lemon juice, vanilla extract and lots of pepper. (It is worth mentioning at this point that you could add an onion here. My dishes tend to not include onions. My Dad refuses to eat them and he can spot them a mile off. In fact he removed all of the preserved lemon pieces methodically from this dish before being told that they were in fact not onions, at which point he ate them up without a word. Why he claims he likes onions I have no idea……) I added the risotto rice to the pan and stirred it for a bit before gradually adding fish stock, stirring till I got a thick risotto. I added a few frozen prawns, the peas, and a couple of mange tout pieces before stirring in more black pepper and the crowning glory – the crème fraiche-. It wasn’t half bad, although there is still a half full pack of crème fraiche left to eat….

Detox Meal 2 – tomato trout

Detox Meal 2 – tomato trout

After a typical weekend of brunch and boozy evenings (never want to see wine and cheese again) I was coming out of the kitchen with a typical ‘I NEED TO GET GREEN VEGETABLES INSIDE ME’ dish that my body was screaming out for, when I was stopped and complimented by U8 and U7 for my both healthy looking and yummy smelling dish. Therefore this dish is for them.

Here are the benefits in this dish
1. Trout is healthier than salmon but still has lots of Omega 3
2. Broccoli is good for the liver (a necessity)
3. Garlic cures all overindulgences
4. Fills you up
5. tomatoes make your skin look amazing
6. mostly very cheap – trout is only £1.50 per fillet and everything else is sainsburys basics
7. spice speeds up the metabolism
8. it takes all of 15mins to make and it is all on a hob (thanks student cooking)

Ingredients
1 trout fillet
1x400g chopped tomatoes
1x onion
4 garlic cloves (or 2tsp very lazy chopped garlic)
1 small courgette
half a head of broccoli
salt
Worcester sauce
smoked paprika
dried parsley
black pepper
individual pack of Philadelphia (get the light stuff to be super healthy)

Place the chopped onion and garlic in a pan and sprinkle over some sea salt (this will help them sweat  cooking without oil). After a minute sprinkle over some paprika and worcester sauce. Leave for another minute, then add the tomatoes followed by a little hot water poured into the tomato tin/ carton. Leave to simmer. Meanwhile chop broccoli and courgette and put into a microwave proof bowl and cover with boiling water, place in the microwave for 5mins. Finally add black pepper and parsley to the tomato chutney and when thickened pour into a bowl. Then place the trout skin down in a pan and cook for 2mins, then flip and cook for another 1-2mins. Serve the fish with tomato chutney on the side, topped with Philadelphia and with the green veg on the side. Enjoy feeling healthy before you get invited out to the pub again tomorrow….

Organ lessons

Organ lessons

My friend (who happens to be an organist) turned 21 yesterday. His sole wish was to have champagne and smoked salmon on his birthday (you can probably see why we are friends). So of course I selflessly obliged him in drinking his champagne and going for both lunch and dinner with him (loch fyne and cote since you ask) and had a wonderful evening. But what do you give the foodie organist ? an organ cake of course.
Using the time in my latest Early music lecture efficiently I planned a cake with a little help from another organist for authenticity. I figured a proper large pipe organ was a little ambitious so went with a chamber organ. One thing I am struggling with at uni is the lack of food processor (I know, middle class problems) so my chocolate cake ended up with small chunks of chocolates rather than the smooth texture I was expecting but that was a surprisingly tasty addition which I could easily pass of as an intentional clever twist. After making my two square shaped chocolate cakes I cut one in equal halves, and one with a slightly small half so that there was a ledge at the bottom for the seat. Then I levelled each one so that they had flat tops and square edges and sandwiched the layers together with strawberry jam.

After that I covered the whole cake in strawberry jam which stops the icing from getting all crumby when you spread it over and also gives a nice tang to the cake (I didn’t necessarily realise this would happen but on tasting it was pretty good). Finally I covered the whole cake in buttercream chocolate fudge icing, added a Caramac? (me neither) as a music stand, a Twix as the seat, iced a keyboard and pipes on the back and it sort of looked like an organ. Although it’s a good thing my artwork gets eaten almost immediately

 

Il Tricolore: Red, White and Green

Another one of my favourite courses of the fat duck menu was one of the few seasonally changing ones. Heston has developed an amazing idea for the presentation of this course. A white chocolate picnic blanket with a check transfer which just before serving is gently melted with a blow torch before serving and it looks so delicious. Not only this but it tastes delicious, I’ve already posted about olive oil shortbread which on its own is a really surprisingly good (I would say better than butter….tentatively) but combining it with the strawberry flavours and white chocolate it is even better. Here is my version of the dessert (warning it is addictive and very very sweet) edible flowers are not required for the home version.
Heston’s


Il Tricolore: Red, White and Green


 Ingredients (serves 2)
Freeze Dried Strawberries
400g strawberries
Olive Oil Ganache
150g white chocolate
100ml cream
100ml olive oil
Olive Oil Shortbread
50g butter
50g sugar
100g flour
50g ground almonds
vanilla extract
salt
½ egg yolk
1/2tsp baking powder
50ml olive oil
black pepper
Strawberry Syrup
50g sugar
1tbsp balsamic vinegar
Macerated Strawberries
2tsp Cardomon pods
1tbsp sugar
coriander seeds
To serve
50g shelled pistachios, chopped
micro herbs


1.     For the Ganache, line a 18cm/18cm square tin on the base. Heat the cream on a medium heat, to the cusp of boiling. Chop the chocolate into very fine pieces, mix the cream and oil together and pour over the chocolate, leave for 1 min then combine. Pourinto the tin and place in the freezer for 1-2hours till solid.
2.     For the shortbread, preheat the oven 150oC. Cream the butter and sugar together. Then add the vanilla, salt, flour, almonds, oil, baking powder, egg yolk and a pinch of black pepper. Mix to form a soft dough, adding more oil or more flour depending on the consistency. Line a baking tray wit baking parchment and place the dough on top, cover with a layer of clingfilm and roll the dough out, with the rolling pin above the cling film to approx. 6mm thick.  Bake in the oven for 15mins until hard and golden brown at the edges, place in the fridge.
3.     For the freeze dried strawberries, thinly slice 5 strawberries, removing the husks for a flat edge. Place in a preheated oven at 100oC and leave for 30-40mins.
4.     For the syrup, puree 6 strawberries from the 400g and combine with the balsamic and sugar over a high heat will the mixture reduces and becomes syrupy, drain if possible and pour into a sauce bottle, refrigerate.
5.     For the Macerated strawberries, shortly before serving, cut 5 strawberries in half lengthways, removing the husks so they can stand on a flat base. Crush the cardamom pods and sprinkle over the strawberries with the sugar and leave to macerate for 5mins. Meanwhile crush the pistachios and turn the ganache onto the shortbread. Cut the shortbread and ganache with a short knife into rectangular pieces.
6.     To serve, squeeze a line of strawberry syrup onto the centre of the plate to stick the shortbread. Place the shortbread on top. Lay three freeze dried strawberry pieces on top and sprinkle over the crushed pistachios, pressing into the ganache and place a spoonful of pistachios in the top LH corner just above the shortbread. On the top RH corner above the shortbread position 3 macerated strawberry halves curling around the biscuit and different angles. Squeeze a line of strawberry syrup from the bottom strawberry to the edge of the plate downwards. Position 2 more strawberries along this line. Place a coriander seed on the tip of each strawberry and garnish with microherbs.

Birthday Brownies

Birthday Brownies

My birthday this year was all about food (you are only 21 once). Eggs Royale, Pain au Raisin and a surprise slice of strawberries and cream gateaux (soo bad for you) with a candle in the top is quite a good way to start the day. (Thank you U8,U4, U7 and the soprano) I have to say Patisserie Valerie was surprising amazing – I wasn’t expecting a chain to come out so well but their patisserie (the pastry and cake) were the best I’d had outside of france, the poached eggs were lovely and runny, the hollondaise was nice and salty and the brioche was a surprise interesting addition to the eggs royal, if only i’d been able to fit in some macaroons…. http://www.patisserie-valerie.co.uk

This cake was absolutely amazing – the sponge was really light, the cream was also light (whipped and sweet and the nuts added crunch. The cream on top was possibly a bit much but the whole thing just floated away in the mouth, sugary creamy fluffiness.

Barely finished breakfast when I had to move into lunch. It’s surprisingly difficult to keep eating when you let yourself eat everything you want, it almost becomes an effort (I say almost). but when the comedy girl took me out for a champagne lunch at Harriet’s tea room I couldn’t refuse. Harriet’s was upmarket pub food. The sweet potato fries were lovely if a tad under seasoned, the salmon fishcakes were good if a little overcooked but peas were a little boring. It was tasty food, and my grandma would have loved it but the food wasn’t the most exciting I’ve tasted. Having said this the company was excellent (I mean the comedy girl not the other couples average age 70), the staff were amazing – they suggested champagne and brought out a candle in the lemon meringue pie we shared for dessert without asking! Plus the meringue pie was pretty tasty and the menu was affordable and the atmosphere was quiet enough to chat. I would take parents (or get them to take you) for champagne tea there sometime. http://harrietscafetearooms.co.uk/cambridge-city-centre-tearooms/

For the final cake of the day I had made myself exactly what I wanted Cheesecake Brownies. Pizza Express may seem like a basic restaurant for a massive foodie to go on their birthday but great service, free bottle of prosecco for the birthday girl and 25% off mains is a bit of an incentive. Plus I can confidently say the Calabrese pizza is the best pizza on the menu – there is a reason it is the most expensive. Spicy Calabrese sausage D.O.P, hot soft n’duja sausage, finely chopped red chillies, roquito peppers, red & yellow peppers, mozzarella, rocket, pesto, oregano, grana padano. I had panicked about these brownies because I had cooked them in S staircase which meant running back and forth as I failed to work out how to use the oven twice…. But turns out the combination of a classic Nigella brownie base with basic cheesecake topping is a good one

Cheesecake Brownies

Brownies
375 g soft unsalted butter
375 g best quality dark chocolate
6 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
500 g caster sugar
225 g plain flour
1 teaspoon salt

Cheesecake Topping
300g low fat cream cheese
150g sugar
1tbsp vanilla extract 
1 egg

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
2. Line your approximatley 33 x 23 x 5 1/2cm brownie pan with foil or baking paper.
3. Mix the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla extract till smooth, beat in an egg

4. Melt the butter and chocolate together in a large heavy based saucepan.
5. In a bowl beat the eggs with the sugar and vanilla.

6. Measure the flour into another bowl and add the salt.
7. When the chocolate mixture has melted, let it cool a bit before beating in the eggs and sugar mixture, and then the flour.
8. Beat to combine and then scrape out of the saucepan into the lined brownie pan.

9. Top with the cheesecake mix and using the base of a fork, swirl for a marble effect
10. Bake for about 25 minutes. (this can vary on the oven)
11. When its’s ready, the top should be dried to a paler brown speckle with white splattering  but the middle still dark and dense and gooey.
12. Keep checking the brownies as they cook; remember that they will continue to cook as they cool.\


They taste good warm from the oven or slightly cooled…. In fact they just taste very very good


The Accidental Brownies

The Accidental Brownies
            On the last day of Croatia I was in using up mode. I saw eggs, chocolate and what I thought was flour and immediately thought of brownies. (Plus I had been told off earlier that day by one of the boys for not providing enough between meal snacks – you would have thought with all that food….-) I also saw some mascarpone so decided to add them in too. I melted chocolate, a little salt and butter together in a pan. Meanwhile I whisked the eggs with sugar and added in vanilla and the mascarpone. I mixed this into the chocolate mix. At this point I realised that the flour was not actually flour, but cornflour. I debated throwing the whole mixture away but decided it was a waste of perfectly good ingredients. So instead I added the cornflour tentatively. I was so nervous that I only cooked the brownies for 15mins at 140oC before checking every 5mins to see if they were done. 10mins later they passed my test and I took them out and let them harden up.
            They were a surprise success, more morish even than Nigella’s brownies (the recipe I would usually swear by). They proved useful again when my sister was baking for a gluten intolerant friend; I had accidentally invented my own recipe for the perfect snack for her. 

For the love of Campari

For the love of Campari

            If there is one thing my mother loves in the world more than her children (although possibly not her job) it is Campari. A treat when on holiday, straight, over ice with a Mediterranean view and her children cooking the dinner. So it was inevitable when my sister and I and our 4 friends turn up at a holiday house in Croatia at 10pm after 6 hours or so of travelling, the only drink we had to offer to them on the first introduction to my parents was, Campari?

                                             

            Luckily our friends soon developed a (possibly polite) taste for Campari and we settled down into a routine of beach, card games, scrabble, aperitifs and 3-course dinners. Since this was the same place as we had visited the year before I knew exactly how the lie of the land was food wise. Each morning my mum and I (and occasional extras – although the number of volunteers diminished as the holiday went on and the nights got later-) would go down to the fish market followed by a coffee, veg market and the custard doughnut shop, a staple of every Croatian holiday. The veg market in Starigrad, Hvar is a wonderful variety of fresh fruit and veg, olive oil and honey. Except for the clouds of terrifying wasps food lovers paradise. I was especially popular by the end of the week with our chosen stall (possibly due to the mountains of fruit and veg I bought each day), so much so, we would be presented with huge handfuls of grapes, which, once shaken clean of the ravenous wasps, would be gratefully received. The lady and I, although hindered by language barriers, communicated in a lovely mix of sign language, Italian and basic English. Whatever I did, she seemed charmed, and gave me a hug at the end of the week.
            I had many glamorous assistants in the kitchen, from the actual keen cooks (who even gutted about 100 sardines at one point..) to the more occasional cameos (who discovered whipping egg whites is very time consuming..) We ended up eating a huge array of dishes. The barbecue was put to good use (the part of the cooking considered ‘man’s work’), 
                                                 
with a favourite being the grilled sardines, fresh from the morning.  The veg ran out every day as we made vats of roasted veg (oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary), cherry tomatoes (capers, onions, basil, oil, vinegar, sugar, garlic, salt and pepper) and potatoes (oil, garlic, rosemary, salt, pepper). One of the unusual dishes we had was Thai pork belly and egg fried rice cooked by one of my sisters friends, delicious and my dad didn’t even complain at the spiciness! We even attempted various puddings, such as tiramisu, peach tarte tatin  and honey and lavender pannacotta using local produce. We even tried to make Croatian delicacies, of which the Ajav sauce was a big hit. Roasted aubergine and blackened red pepper pureed with oil, paprika, salt, pepper, sugar and vinegar. Another delicious invention was the fava bean dip. A sort of chunky houmous made by boiling the beans with lemons and mashing them up with olive oil, salt and pepper.
                                               
The most interesting foodie experience in Croatia though had to be the sun dried tomatoes. One of my friends had bought her own homemade sun dried tomatoes that were so good we had polished them off by the second lunchtime. The only thing to do was make some more. So on my friend’s instruction we cut up cherry tomatoes, salted them, put rosemary on top and laid them in the sun for a couple of days. Hey Presto they shrivelled up! We washed them in white wine vinegar (or what we assumed it was – it was called alkoholic and looked like vinegar-) and jarred them with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, delicious.
It seemed such a shame when we had to go home to leave our little routine, but I held on till the very last minute and had the leftover roasted vegetables for breakfast on the ferry home while the others had pastries. I love roasted veg almost as much as my mother loves Campari.

The Great French Adventure

The Great French Adventure
Rose Wine, garlic and other stories
            This summer I went on yet another choir tour (well choir tour is a relative term, it was more a cookery holiday with the odd bit of singing). I don’t think you can ask for much more than the gorgeous weather of the south of France, great company and a massive kitchen completely at my disposal. Luckily the choir was one to a part so they were quite lenient when I would spend most rehearsals leaving mid song saying ‘just got to check on the cookies’. (I think the fact they got to eat the cookie dough may have helped a little bit) All in all it was a rather good set up, the four singers (plus 2 extra tag alongs) and our hosts, all welcome recipients of my experimentations (even if they often turned out not necessarily as planned). Plus a huge herb garden, which I’m sure any chef will tell you is one of the ultimate luxuries, to be able to go out and pick anything you feel like adding to the dish. On top of all this we were able to give a little back with a small number of concerts we managed to fit in around the swimming, eating and cooking.
            My mantra in France was garlic, butter and cream, from there you couldn’t go much wrong. I would spend most days getting up and dragging people to the boulongerie/patisserie for some of the best croissant I have ever tasted (well it was France), before getting started on a routine of cooking with intermittent rehearsals. Of course I always had willing helpers (especially on the washing up front which was a godsend), the soprano was particularly talented at chopping garlic, the bass successfully whipped about 10 egg whites before I found the electric whisk and the tenor had a moment of spiritual revelation over whipping cream.  (There was also the time I set them shelling pistachios – I was not popular..) Then in the evening (sometimes following a concert), we would sit down to an aperitif (usually rose wine a la region though thanks to my influence Campari later made an appearance) followed by a three-course meal. Of course I made some obvious choices, the pea pesto for instance, but I also got to have a go at gazpacho (a little heavy on the garlic, what wasn’t) and snails. My favourite dessert I made that week was lemon meringue pie, although I learnt a few things
1.     Let the lemon curd cool completely before pouring in the pastry cases
2.     Don’t forget about the pastry cases in the oven – they will burn
3.     Cook the lemon curd for longer than you think (mine was liquid)
4.     Sage makes quite a nice addition to the curd
Another big fail of the week was the last night beef. We had a concert so I was determined that I would slow cook the beef in red wine, however I had failed to take into account that the cut we had bought had very little fat on it so the beef came out of the oven old and tough, luckily the amount of herbs I had shoved in the pot meant it tasted good even if the texture was wrong – note to self fat=tender.
            Another not so much fail, but definite disaster moment was the fish. There were eleven of us eating so I had bought 3 large fillets of some unidentifiable white fish which after flouring and seasoning, I fried using a large flat pan on the stove. Unfortunately not only did the kitchen fill with smoke which made my turning down of a cigarette earlier in the evening seem pointless, but also I almost set myself on fire several times. Is it bad that my first thought at this point was not ‘I almost died’ but ‘what will they do without an alto’…..
            Two of the more exciting desserts were the rhubarb tarte tatin and the peach clafoutis. The tarte tatin was simple. I made a caramel using about 3tbsp sugar and a knob of butter, 1tbsp of honey, a split vanilla pod, large sprinkling of salt and some cinnamon and ginger. Then I placed raw rhubarb into the pan before covering the whole thing with a sheet of puff pastry. I cooked for about 15-25mins or until the top was brown at 140oC, then I let it cool. I served this with an orange and basil infused custard. Once you’ve made custard you realise how surprisingly easy it is. You can add any flavour by infusing it in the cream that you heat up (here orange peel, vanilla seeds and basil), then you need lots of egg yolks, sugar whisked up and the key when you combine these two mixtures is just to heat it over a very low heat and don’t stop stirring. It will feel like it takes forever and you will want to leave it, but don’t. If you need to go to the loo, turn it off, if you need to check on a cake, turn it off, but whatever you do don’t leave it unattended.

            The peach clafoutis was a new dessert I’d always seen but never made, it’s a sort of giant, thick baked pancake. The key here is not to undercook it, add vanilla extract and lots of sugar on top to brulee the top. To make the pancake mix, you heat 125ml cream, 125ml milk in a pan with vanilla extract/ any flavours you would like in it (here I added a little bay leaf). Beat 4 eggs and 170g sugar together, then fold in 3 tbsp flour. Add the cooled milk/cream mix and whisk together. Halve peaches and place facing up in a dish (they add a lovely sourness within the sweet batter). Pour over the batter and dot butter over the top. Cook for 20mins at 180oC, take out of the oven and sprinkle over sugar, put in the oven for a further 10mins till the top has browned slightly. The custard I served with this was grand marnier flavour. For this I added grand marnier at the final stage, when I was slowly cooking the final product so that all the alcohol didn’t evaporate. Unfortunately at 9 in the morning when I decided to make this some of the alcohol did come off, I don’t advise starting the day steaming grand marnier, especially if you then have wine with lunch….. We also found with this custard that the grand marnier appeared to strengthen with age, when we had the leftovers the next day for lunch it was a lot more alcoholic than it had seemed the night before….
            By the end of the night, we were usually singing loudly (it was a good thing we could all actually sing) a wide variety of pieces. We managed to go from Rule Britannia in four part harmony, to a memorable rendition of you’re the one that I want from Grease complete with dancing, to Bruckner motets. We did ask some of the locals on the final night if our singing had disturbed at 1 in the morning, luckily the immediate neighbours assured us that they had enjoyed it and it was an advertisement for our concert rather than a deterrent. Luckily plying them with red onion and goats cheese tart was another factor in appeasing the neighbours.
            If anything can make a kitchen smell amazing, it is slow cooking caramelised onions. All you have to do is finely slice red onions and put in a pan with garlic, rosemary, thyme, salt, pepper, vinegar, butter and sugar and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally till you get a lovely concoction of sweet smelling, sticky onions. Use this to top a sheet of puff pastry and add slices of goats cheese and you have heaven on earth. The French get a lot right.
            In fact other things the French clearly got right as seen from this holiday choir tour.
1.     Garlic (it basically makes you feel better however much you’ve eaten, dunk, sung)
2.     Croissant
3.     Lunch should take at least 2 hours, dinner 4
4.     Even the most basic ingredients in supermarkets should be nice
5.     Butter and Cream make everything better
6.     Baguettes really do make the best sort of bread
7.     Homemade pate is divine, flavours don’t have to be traditional and it doesn’t need to look pretty (e.g fig, chestnut, pepper..)
8.     Wine co-operatives are such a good idea (where anyone who earns a vineyard, donates their grapes to one co-operative, who make the wine and the profit is split. The community then fill up jerry cans from petrol pumps and it is cheaper, nicer and better for everyone)
9.     A little wine at every meal is so much better than England’s binge drinking society
10. If it’s not in season you will find it had to get hold of, even in a supermarket
11. Champagne and macaroons are the answer to everything