I’ve never been a scientist. As my mother will tell you, I managed to get through my physics GCSE through a mixture of learning the text book and sheer luck. I’m sure my A-levels of Ancient Greek, Latin and Music (which of course I use all the time in everyday life…..) have something to do with the creative side of cooking, but one thing I never expected to find so fascinating was the science behind cooking. From the moment I discovered that some vague memory about how osmosis worked could actually be usefully applied when boiling potatoes, using osmosis to infuse the potatoes with flavour before mashing, I was hooked. It’s not just the science of food that has interested me recently, but I’ve been finding out a lot about wine as well. While I’m not going to be able to spill out all the information I accumulated about wine over a qualification i did this summer in one blog post, and it is almost impossible to understand how different wines taste unless you taste a lot of similar wines one after the other, there are a few things that might surprise you. For anyone who declares I only like Chardonnay; Chardonnay tastes completely different based on the climate – citrusy, fresh in a cool climate, tropical and rich in a warm climate. Red wine can only be made with red grapes but white can be made with both (as long as the red skins are removed). The colour (tannins) are in the skin. Italian wines are almost certainly high in acidity, it’s just how the Italians like it. If a wine says Grand Cru on it, the wine is one of the best, but Special Reserve technically has no guarantee of a good wine. Generally a grape that produces high tannin wine (thick skins e.g Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) will be better when it is aged and the tannins softened, but thinner skinned grapes (Merlot, Grenache, Pinot Noir) can be drunk earlier. And that is why I always drink Merlot in a pub. I could probably go on like this all day, proper wine geek.
In terms of wine/food pairings – there are a few rules: (If you do one of these courses you get given a handy card you can carry with you – which of course I use all the time…..)
While overkilling the wine geekery in a conversation with my friend, Madam Jojo, she insisted that I design a wine tasting for her and some friends to put my skills to the test. Here is the menu, a little bit about what they taste like and the dishes I matched them with… on that note Majestic Wine were fantastic, great value, delivered to the house for free and huge selection.
Lindauer Special Reserve Blanc de Blancs
Sparkling White New Zealand, 100% Chardonnay, Butter, Biscuit, lemon
Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2012, Vocoret
White Burgundy, 100% Chardonnay, citrus, green apple, minerality
Smoked Salmon, Crab Salad, Fennel, Apple, Avocado, Sourdough Bread
Marquis de Pennautier Chardonnay ‘Terroirs d’Altitude’, 2012 Pays D’oc
Southern France White, 100% Chardonnay, stone and tropical fruits, cloves
Château Tour du Haut Moulin, 2007, Cru Bourgeoise, Haut Medoc
Red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon dominated Merlot/Cab blend, blackberry, spice, smooth tannins
Spicy Black Beans, Bacon, Confit Potato, Creme Fraiche, Toasted Almonds
Matsu El Recio 2012, Toro
Intense Red, 100% Tempranillo, coffee beans, chocolate, overripe plums, smooth tannins
Royal Tokaji Late Harvest, 2012
Hungarian dessert wine, ripe peach, apricots, nectarine, high acidity so not cloying on palate
Orange Cream, Basil Jelly, Honey toasted oatmeal
I will not call our Christmas dinner at the house the ‘practice round’, despite it being nearly a week early since all three housemates are leaving to spend the actual day with their parents. It was rather impressive in its own right, especially as it only took us around 2 hours to make. Despite Mark Francis’ pleas we did not get a turkey for the three of us; impractical considering 2/3 of us were leaving a day later. Instead I picked up a chicken on the way home from work. I turned up to discover a beautifully laid table with champagne, wine and dessert wine glasses, place mats and candles. The house had been decorated top to toe in tinsel and some wonderfully garish red fairy lights (Santa’s grotto in our home). We even had a mini wooden tree, Aldi’s finest crackers, (I’ve always wanted a fortune telling fish), and numerous Christmas cards. As I pootled around the cupboards preparing the main course, I even found unnecessary christmas bargains picked up from Aldi – a gift set containing stollen bites and rum, more mince pies (we have a never ending supply), and star-shaped biscuits (which turned out to be great in coffee cocktails).
So with St John’s College Choir’s carol CD blaring from the speakers (interspersed with snippets from the Gospel Messiah Claire Balding had found on YouTube), I set down to work, over-catering as always.
After some craftily-posed cracker-pulling selfies, it was time to actually eat. The starter was pulled out of the fridge, made ahead and stylishly plated up in cocktail glasses. The lovely Claire Balding’s take on the traditional prawn cocktail used horseradish and tomato and chilli relish for a less synthetically tasting Marie Rose sauce, and was delicious.
Gradually I began loading the table with dishes for the main course. I decided this year just to make up the recipes as I went along; sometimes it’s more fun to live life on the edge. I think at this point even Mark Francis was pretty pleased we hadn’t gone for the turkey. We had a roast chicken. Over the years I have tried and failed many times to roast a chicken perfectly – the results have usually been either too dry or undercooked. After some years perfecting it, my fail safe method is to rub the chicken liberally with sea salt and pepper, adding a tbsp of butter massaged under the skin (a bizarrely satisfying thing to do), stuff the cavity with various fresh herbs (I used bay leaves, thyme, sage, rosemary), and then put in the oven for 1 hour at 180ºc with a 1 inch level of water (or white wine?) in the bottom of the roasting tin. After 1 hour, uncover and cook for a further 20-30mins until the juices run clear. Leave to rest for 20mins and you have a ready-made gravy base!
Next up were the roast potatoes. I have tried so many times to make these healthy, but I’m afraid while using olive oil produces fairly crunchy and tasty potatoes, nothing can beat goose fat for top-notch roasties. I peeled and cut some King Edward potatoes into uneven knobbly lumps (very important as the more edges, the better the roast potatoes will be). I boiled them for 7-8mins, adding salt, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns, rosemary and thyme to the water. Meanwhile I heated 1 large tbsp goose fat in the oven until melted. To this, I added the drained potatoes and herbs and roasted at 180ºC for 30-40mins. Even Mark Francis broke his usual 3 potato limit for these. In my opinion though, the Chef’s treat has to be the virtually deep-fried crunchy herbs you are left with at the end.
No Christmas dinner would be complete without parsnips. These are again something I rarely have except at Christmas. But that may be because I am snobby enough only to like my roasted parsnips. I positively turn my nose up at those barely-cooked chunks of parsnips that are usually served up at mass-produced roast dinners. For me a perfect roast parsnip should be thin and slightly caramelised: chewy and crunchy at the same time. So this year I sliced some carrots and parsnips into batons, tossing them in salt, pepper, thyme, truffle oil, olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, and a drizzle of honey. I roasted these at 180ºC for 30-40mins until caramelised, stirring every so often.
I am a fan of creamed spinach. I understand it is not everybody’s cup of tea, but since I was forgoing the most delicious part of the Christmas spread (the bread sauce), this was the nearest substitute I could manage at short notice. Simply melt 2 tbsp butter and whisk in 1 tbsp flour, add milk, whisking at small intervals until you get a white sauce. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg. When ready to serve, pour boiling water over a colander of spinach to wilt. Stir the spinach into the white sauce, add cream if desired.
The cranberry sauce is another thing people rarely seem to want to make, which for me makes absolutely no sense. It’s so easy and always sooo much nicer than the stuff from a jar. All you do is put 300g sugar and 300g cranberries in a pan with a splash of vanilla extract, port and water. Add 1 tsp cinnamon and 1 tsp ground cloves. Bring to the boil and stir for 2-3mins, and hey presto! Cranberry sauce that will keep for ages.
On to the stuffing. Mark Francis couldn’t quite believe I was willing to squeeze the meat out of sausage skins in order to make this, but agreed that the end result was worth it. I believe the line CB used to describe them was ‘cakes of fun’, although I think the revised version ‘balls of fun’ has a better ring to it. To make the stuffing I simply mixed the meat of 8 sausages with a handful of cranberries, 1 egg, salt, pepper, a handful of chopped sage leaves, a sprinkling of parsley, 200g chopped chestnuts and 3 tbsp golden breadcrumbs. I shaped this mix into little balls and roasted in the oven at 180ºC for 30 mins.
My final addition to the table was the gravy. This really needs no recipe as thanks to the method of roasting the chicken above, the juices had already collected in the bottom of the pan. I simply whisked in 1 tbsp sifted cornflour to thicken, and added a stock cube to flavour.
Mark Francis’ main contribution were the ‘Ancient Roman style’ brussels sprouts, using an old family recipe. Unfortunately Mark Francis’ mother works along the same lines as me when it comes to cooking, providing him only a list of ingredients with no specific cooking times of amounts. This could have all gone so wrong. But in fact they went down so well I am planning using the recipe for my own Christmas dinner tomorrow. Simply take Brussels sprouts, raisins and olives, braise them in stock for 4-5mins until reduced, and then stir through some pine nuts. When in Rome or indeed Cambridge…
After sitting and groaning at our stomachs for a bit, we decided we would play some games before dessert. While ‘Pass the bomb’ using the Great British Bake Off music instead of a timer was great fun, I’m not sure ‘Twister’ was the wisest idea given the quantity of food consumed… Luckily Claire Balding had made a delightful light dessert of baked pears, which she had stuffed with ricotta and sprinkled with amaretti biscuits. We served it with a discovery of Mark Francis – Aldi’s Finest: a box set of sparkling Asti dessert wine and Cantucci biscuits. While at first we were unsure what “Aldi’s Finest” would entail, it was a wonderful dessert wine, only 5%, sweet but not cloying. Shame you can only buy it in the box set.
I have a friend, who shall remain nameless (although those of you who are good with word games may realise what her name is), who recently had a birthday party. As a gift, I turned up with a box of chocolates made up of chocolates forming an acrostic spelling of her name.
Mango, Lime and Sea Salt Caramel
Olive and Strawberry
Elsewhere on my blog you can find exact instructions on how to make ganache and caramels etc. But here are a few tips on constructing flavour combinations and using fruit in your chocolates.
When I put together a box of chocolates there are three things I always consider. 1) how I can use a balance of white, dark and milk (I feel this means you cover most people’s taste preferences), 2) having a mixture of textures and flavours in each bite (never just one per chocolate), and 3) how all the chocolates relate to one other in the box. Like creating a dish, I like chocolates in a collection to compliment each other. Other things I like to start with are classic combinations, such as sea salt and caramel, and then think about ways to pimp them up. The idea is that not only is each box better than buying one from a shop, as being homemade no two are the same; but also that they are simply more exciting then something you would buy at Thorntons. (Having said this, as a devotee of Lindt Sea Salt Dark Chocolate bars, I do agree that sometimes a little bit of simplicity just hits the spot.) I know some people feel that homemade chocolates should be made with high quality chocolate, but I think if the flavours are vibrant then any chocolate works fine. So long as the dark chocolate is at least 75% cocoa content, it doesn’t really matter about the other two. A little cost-saving tip!
I think I may have been inspired by my recent trip to a Brazilian fruit market (see Brazil Baby, I’m in Miami Bitch) because my first thought for the letter M was Mango and Lime. As followers of my blog know, I have recently moved to a house virtually next-door to an Aldi. This means I have the luxury of using exotic fruits in my food whilst still working to a budget. I think one of the things that makes homemade chocolates special is the fact that they can use real fruit rather than extracts. To make the caramel, I pulverised mango and simmered the pulp with lime and chilli, before straining and adding to sugar and continuing to make my usual salted caramel. It meant that it was a thinner consistency than my usual caramel, and was lighter in colour. This would probably work for most fruit caramels. I poured the caramel into a white chocolate shell: usually I wouldn’t put these two together as I find the combination too sickly-sweet, but the chilli and lime here off-sets the sweetness.
For the Irish coffee, I went with a whisky gel and an espresso ganache. Already powerful flavours, so I put them with milk chocolate, providing the sugar that completes the ‘drug triumvirate’ (alcohol, caffeine and sugar) in all the best things: affogatos, Irish coffees, jäger bombs….
The third flavour achieved something which I’ve wanted to try for ages: savoury with chocolate. Black olive caramel (again pulverised, like fruit, with a pinch of salt) and a sweet strawberry ganache. Using strawberry purée helped the chocolates pack a flavourful punch. These were then smothered in dark chocolate, and dipped in crumbled almonds to add texture.
I don’t like to say these chocolates encapsulate their namesake as I feel it would be rude to insinuate she was either over caffeinated, spicy or alternative. But I feel she appreciated the comedic effort in the word-play of the names.
Since realising that I’ve finally left institutionalised education and actually have no fixed path anymore I’ve decided to branch out with my cooking. I seem to have had writers block during all the post exam furore ( hence the lack of posts recently) so I’ve decided to try and set myself challenges. In order to master these recipes I’ve always struggled with I’m going to read lots of different versions of the recipe to try and pinpoint the problems and come up with the best result. First up is Patisserie. I’ve never really mastered some of the classic French recipes so with a week of nothing to do but put off unpacking my university stuff, I decided to do a mini tour of the highlights of French patisserie. First up is choux pastry. In homage to the upcoming final leg of the Tour de France in Paris, I’ve decided to make Paris Brest. This pastry was first made to commemorate the Paris-Brest bicycle race in 1910, ironically it was popular with the riders as it gave them a lot of energy but I can’t image that it would fit in with the intense nutritional programs of today’s competitors. It’s meant to look like a bicycle wheel, as exhibit A shows.
I’ve had problems with choux pastry before. My profiteroles looked incredibly promising in the oven but sank the moment they came out leaving a soggy flat circle…. So this time I studied a number of different recipes to try and get it right this time. As far as I can tell the 3 things to be careful are
1. Don’t slack beating the flour and water mix before adding the eggs as the pastry needs a good support for the outer shell.
2. Don’t try to add all the eggs at once, the eggs need to be properly beaten so that the pastry rises enough.
3. Don’t take the pastries out of the oven too soon, even if it is a little brown, the pastries will sink if brought out too early.
1. Start by melting 150ml water and 50g butter and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and beat in a pinch of salt and 75g flour into the mix so the dough is shiny and comes away from the pan. Return to the heat and beat for 2mins.
2. Set aside to cool a little. When the mix is cool, add 2 eggs and a drop of vanilla essence, beating in 1 at a time. Beat well for 2-5mins until the mix is shiny and drops off the spoon.
3. Heat the oven to 200oC. Fill a piping bag with the mix and pipe circles onto a lined baking tray. (This is actually the hardest bit, try to make the thickness as equal as possible all the way round for a the prettiest finish) Brush the tops with egg yolk and then scatter over 50g flaked almonds. Bake in the oven for 10mins, then turn the heat down to 180oC and bake for a further 20mins until brown on top. As soon as they come out of the oven split the pastries in half lengthways. Leave to cool.
4. For the filling, beat together 2 egg yolks and 40g sugar together until light and fluffy, then add 25g plain flour. Meanwhile heat 160ml whole milk in a pan with 1 tsp expresso powder and 1tsp vanilla extract. Pour the heated milk (not boiling) over the egg mix and whisk together. Return to the pan and cook over a low heat whisking constantly. When the mixture is thickened remove from the heat. Leave to cool (This is again where I went wrong – try to refrigerate this if possible as if you add the mixture too warm to the cream, the mix won’t be as thick in the pastries as it should be)
5. Beat 200ml cream to soft peaks. Fold in the patisserie cream and decant into a piping bag. Pipe between the pastry halves. Dust with icing sugar and serve.
As a side note I also had a go at making Kale chips (healthy crisps so I’m told). Simply remove the thick stalks of the kale leaves and tear into small pieces. Lay on a foil lined baking tray, sprinkle with salt and bake in the oven for 6-8mins at 200oC. It’s not quite the same as Walkers but they are pretty addictive.
I’ve been asked recently how to plan the perfect dinner party. As I am constantly shouting at the screen during ‘Come Dine with Me’ episodes – PLAN PLAN PLAN!!
Of course you don’t have to be as anal with me with your planning, a spreadsheet is not always necessary…. But here is Exhibit A of the way I have planned parties since I was about 12.. Works every time
for anyone who’s ever asked me what it’s like to work in a kitchen this guy hits the nail on the head!