Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Vanilla fudge: Hamper project no. 3

The cute little 'Life is Sweet' Hope and Greenwood confectionary cookbook has been leaning idly against a pile of Observer Food Monthly magazines for over a year. To busy myself in the kitchen making sweets just seemed too extravagant a notion. That is, until the Christmas hamper project began, and my 6-month-old found contentment in his high chair. Fudge seemed a safe bet, and all the ingredients are available in your local supermarket. I polled friends on Facebook to decide which flavour to make - vanilla, ginger, or chocolate - and the feedback was overwhelming. Traditional vanilla came top.

Miss Hope and Mr Greenwood are a couple of sweet makers who set up shop in London, and now have over 10 Victorian-style outlets across the capital, offering traditional handmade British confectionary in covetable retro packaging. The book's 'characterful' recipe chatter is a bit too cutesy for me, and step-by-step photographs for each type of sweet would be useful, but the method text is fuss free and easy to follow. There is also a useful storing section at the front, which informed me that my fudge would keep well in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, and freeze for 2 months.

A quick summary of my sweet-making experience, before I quote the recipe verbatim:

Pros Only one pan to clean; cheap ingredients
Cons Full and constant attention required; takes at least an hour to make anything
Tip Leave yourself lots of time - the recipe quoted '30 mins to make', it took an hour; make sure you have a radio close by, as there's lots of standing and stirring involved.

Makes 25-30 squares.
  • 700g (1lb 7oz) granulated sugar
  • 75g (3oz) unsalted butter
  • 200ml (7fl oz) evaporated milk
  • 200ml (7fl oz) double cream
  • Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod
Line a 20cm (8in) square baking tin, 4cm (1 1/2in) deep, with baking parchment.

Place the sugar, butter, evaporated milk and cream into a deep, heavy-bottomed pan and gently heat until all the sugar has dissolved, stirring with a wooden spoon. This takes 3-5 minutes. (You can check the sugar has dissolved by running a metal spoon through the mixture and looking on the back of the spoon for sugar crystals.)
Now, turn up the heat to medium and place your sugar thermometer in the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally just to make sure the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pan. After 15 minutes the mixture should have reached 100C (212F), now turn down the heat to a simmer, as it is at this point that the fudge is most likely to burn.
Keep heating until the mixture has reached 115C (240F). Take the pan off the heat. Using an electric whisk or food mixer, beat the mixture for 10 minutes. Add the vanilla seeds and beat for a further 10 minutes until the fudge loses its gloss and goes quite grainy around the edges.
Pour into the prepared tin. After an hour or so, score the fudge with a knife to create squares. Once set, snap the fudge into rough squares.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Indian aubergine pickle: Hamper project no.2

This is a real delight, a Claudia Roden recipe which first appeared in her classic Book of Jewish Food. I discovered it in the recently published Leon Book 2, as I was looking for Christmas hamper inspiration. Intense, rich, fragrant and juicy, it's perfect with cold meats, a curry, or use it like Branston's in a doorstop Cheddar cheese/roast beef sandwich (as I did with the leftovers that didn't make the jar, pictured above).

In retrospect, I might have used the smaller, thinner Middle Eastern aubergines, rather than our big fat European ones. The slices are just enormous! And, there are just a few air bubbles in my jar. I'm sure this won't be a problem in the short term, but if you were looking to store the pickle for 3-6 months, it would be advisable to prod the aubergine slices with a skewer/fork to drive away the bubbles before sealing.

It will keep for a few months, refrigerated.

Here's the recipe, lifted shamelessly from the (very good) Leon cookbook:

Makes: 1 large jar
Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 40 mins
  • 1kg aubergines
  • 1 fresh red chilli, deseeded
  • 5cm piece fresh ginger
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 250ml wine vinegar
  • 250ml toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 6 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 100g sugar
  • sea salt
Sterilise your jar(s).

Cut the aubergines into 1.5cm slices. Blend the chilli, ginger, garlic and cumin with a little of the vinegar in a food processor.

Heat 3 tbsp of the oil in a large pan and add the mustard and fenugreek seeds. When they start to crackle, add the curry leaves along with the ginger and chilli paste. Cook until the mixture becomes a golden colour.

Add the turmeric, sugar, and remaining vinegar and stir well. Add the aubergines, season with salt, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for about 30 minutes.

Allow the mixture to cool, then pour it into a jar. Cover with the remaining oil.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Bea's of Bloomsbury (One New Change)

Nothing about the entrance says 'cake' to me. You have to squint through the window to discover it's Bea's new place. Once inside however, the minimalist display of cupcakes, sitting elegantly like Manolos in grey geometric cubbyholes, leaves you in no doubt. The famous Bea's of Bloomsbury is expanding, with its first little offshoot emerging in the heart of the City, at One New Change. The City folk may well be having to tighten their belts and wean themselves off habitual overindulgence, but that leaves all the more for us, and the odd fortunate tourist (it's next to St Paul's).

Not a great lover of cupcakes, I find the Hummingbird Bakery chain's obese concoctions a waste of calories: the Big Macs of the cake world. But Bea's are altogether finer, more delicate, creations, made to taste as good as they look.

I say delicate... but this slice of triple chocolate cake was a whopper. A doorstop of incredibly rich buttercream and moist dark chocolate sponge. Finishing it was a (pleasurable) challenge.

It being the day after Thanksgiving, we also had to try Bea's pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Soft, indulgent, and perfectly pumpkin-y.

I know I've done this back to front, but Bea's is known for its cakes, so I've sidelined the lunch dish. It might not look pretty, but the generous plate of belated Thanksgiving turkey (an unusual offering for Bea's, where savouries are usually more along the salad line), a steal at £6, was spot on: lashings of gravy, surprisingly tasty turkey, and moreish morsels of cornbread stuffing.

See Kang Leong's London Eater blog for a mouthwatering sequence of pics of the main Theobald's Road shop and cafe, Bea's lair and the hub of this fast-expanding baking empire, where I'll be heading next to try their famous high tea.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Home-dried tomatoes: Hamper project no. 1

Damn Kirstie Allsopp. Come November, she pops her cheery head through all media outlets to remind us to "get our skates on", and prepare our homes for the festivities. Presumably she has a nanny, cleaner, and PA... For those of us who struggle to find time to run a bath, let alone recline in one whilst stitching a patchwork cushion, making gifts is a major undertaking. So, everything I'm making for this year's Christmas hampers has to be a delicious 'treat', but must also be cheap and quick to make.

Oven-dried tomatoes are first on the list, as they keep well. I've always wondered why sun-dried tomatoes are so expensive when bought in jars and tubs in the supermarket, as they are incredibly cheap and easy to make at home (and the oven mimicking the heat of the sun doesn't appear to impair the flavour). The 2nd Leon cook book has a lovely recipe, but it involved a long cooking time. Better still was the Riverford Farm Cook Book's recipe: the prep takes 5-10 mins, and the cooking just 45 mins, creating tomatoes that are juicy rather than chewy (preferable, in my opinion).

Attach a gift label to the jar with instructions for storing on one side, and suggestions for use on the other, such as 'Toss in a salad, use in tarts, or mix with pasta'.

These quantities will fill one 1/2 pint Le Parfait jar.
  • 4 tbsp good quality olive oil
  • 16 tomatoes (I used regular round 'on the vine' tomatoes from the supermarket)
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • sea salt
Drizzle half the olive oil over 2 baking trays. Cut the tomatoes lengthways in half, then slide the knife around the inside of each one and remove the pulp and pips. Arrange the tomato halves on the trays so that they are close but not touching. Drizzle the remaining oil over the top and sprinkle with the sugar and a little salt.

Put the trays in an oven preheated to 150C/Gas 2 and cook for about 45 mins; the tomatoes should look shrunken and slightly coloured when they are done. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

To store, pack the tomatoes into jars and cover completely with good-quality olive oil. Add a sprig of thyme and some thinly sliced garlic to the jars if you like. They will keep for 4-6 months without refrigeration.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Viet-Anh Cafe

Nothing cures a sore head better than a steaming bowl of Vietnamese Pho.

Viet-Anh Cafe on Parkway, Camden, was a frequent weekend pit stop when we lived in NW3, back in the day when bar crawls and night buses were a regular feature of the working week. Four years later we returned with baby in tow, curious to see if it still worked its magic.

To my relief, nothing had changed. The same staff run the place, condensation runs down the pale blue walls, and every table is full. A good start.

For me, every Vietnamese meal must start with fresh vegetable spring rolls (goi cuon). Light and aromatic, and stuffed with herbs, they are the antithesis of greasy fried spring rolls filled with unidentifiable vegetable matter that you frequently find in Chinese restaurants. Accompanied by a rich peanut dipping sauce, they hit the mark, and vanished as quickly as they'd arrived.

The menu is enormous, featuring over a hundred soup, noodle and rice dishes at around £5 each. It takes considerable effort to uncover the authentic Vietnamese dishes amongst the generic Oriental stuff, but if hunger overcomes concerns of authenticity, you'd be hard pressed to choose badly.

The braised and fried duck with peppers, onions, and crispy noodles was hot, sour, salty, and sweet. A blast of umami goodness.
Pho is the classic Vietnamese noodle broth, and - some argue - their national dish. Served with a bowl of lime, herbs and chilli for you to add to taste, you can choose to have it plain or spicy, and with beef or chicken. Seeking something of a more ethereal than earthy nature, I had the lighter chicken version. Ethereal it was. Sublimely fragrant and restorative, with slippery noodles lurking under the clear surface making it a substantial meal.

With two pots of jasmine tea, our bill for two came to less than £20.

There's nothing challenging or pretentious about this caff, just generous plates of noodles and rice, with your protein of choice. Cheap and cheerful. I intend to return and explore the menu more thoroughly, seeking out the more unusual suspects, and in the meantime head to Mien Tay in Battersea, a newish Vietnamese caff that's been garnering enthusiastic write-ups over the past year (see Lizzie's - aka 'Hollow Legs' - blog post here).

Thursday, 4 November 2010

At Home: Carrot Cake

'Foolproof' is one of the most overused words in cookery book publishing, alongside the rather empty 'delicious'. You'll find it scattered thoughtlessly in myriad back cover blurbs. Seldom do recipes in recently published cookbooks stand up to the claim, though I've found the Riverford Farm Cookbook to be a welcome exception. The recipes are well written, and turn out consistently great dishes. It has earned its place on my 'classics' shelf, alongside Richard Corrigan's The Clatter of Forks and Spoons, the Moro series, and Nigel Slater, the only modern books to share space with older trusted classics.

This carrot cake recipe, adapted from the Riverford Farm Cookbook, is a winner. Nuts and spices don't feature, and I think the finished cake is better for it (having a feather-light, clean taste). The original recipe suggests sultanas, but I prefer to use chewy currants, and booze it up a bit.
  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 75g light soft brown sugar
  • 75g dark soft brown sugar
  • 100g currants, soaked in 2 tbsp Cognac/brandy for a few hours, preferably overnight
  • 200g grated carrots
  • 150ml sunflower oil
  • 2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
For the icing:
  • 125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 50g icing sugar, sifted
  • 250g cream cheese
Preheat oven to 160C/Gas 3.

Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl and stir in the sugars. Add the currants and grated carrots. Beat the oil and eggs together and add to the bowl. Combine with either a wooden spoon or an electric mixer.

Spoon the mixture into a greased and lined 20cm springform cake tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 1-1 1/4 hours, until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out on to a wire rack to cool completely.