Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Chocolate truffles: Hamper project no. 6

This marks the end of my prolonged sweet-making binge. It's been fun, but January puts a stop to the present giving and long run of social gatherings at which I can share them, so the only excuse would be gratuitous experimentation and greediness. That won't wash with my 7-month-old.

I had to have two goes at these. Chocolate is a tricky customer, and likes being treated gently. I started off by winging it with my own boozy recipe, having picked up tips from the Hope & Greenwood sweet cookbook, but my mixture curdled, and nothing was going to rescue it. I decided to give them another go after watching Ramsay's wince-inducing 'family' Christmas special, featuring a simple recipe for mint choc truffles. It worked, and they went down a storm, though the mint was negligible in the finished truffle. Here's the recipe, adapted from his screen version (I added sea salt to mine, to perk up the chocolate flavour, and used just double cream).
  • 500ml double cream
  • Bunch of mint
  • 500g dark chocolate (about 70% cocoa solids)
  • 130g butter, diced and at room temp.
  • 130g clear honey
  • 1/2 tsp finely ground Maldon sea salt
  • To coat: cocoa powder, crushed roasted hazelnuts
Pour the cream into a medium saucepan. Bash the mint sprigs with a wooden spoon to release their fragrance and add to the pan. Heat very gently for 5–6 minutes to infuse the cream with the mint. Do not let the cream boil. Meanwhile, break up the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl with the diced butter and honey.

Strain the hot cream through a sieve onto the chocolate, butter and honey, stirring constantly as you do so; discard the mint sprigs. Add the sea salt. Continue to stir until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.

Pour the mixture into a wide, shallow dish, cover and chill in the fridge for an hour or until firm.
Scatter your chosen coating(s) on separate plates. Take the truffle mix from the fridge and, using a teaspoon, scoop out a portion and shape into a sphere by quickly rolling it in your hands. (Do this deftly to avoid the truffle melting with the warmth of your hands.) Toss the truffle in your preferred coating and arrange on a plate. Repeat with the rest.

Place the truffles in a shallow plastic container, seal and refrigerate until firm and ready to serve. Eat within 3–4 days.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Nuts: Hamper project no. 5

To good food
and good friends

and the occasions

that bring them together

A dedication to the convivial nature of eating, elegantly composed by the authors of this little gem, Gifts from the Kitchen. It has seen quite a few grubby hands and busy kitchens in its time, hence looking rather dog-eared. My mother acquired it in the States in the '70s, when she'd decided to embark on homemade treats for Christmas hampers, and recently passed it down to me. You can buy a secondhand copy online. The illustrations on the title page, pictured below, suggest that it was once wrapped in a beautiful retro dust jacket, from which it has sadly long been separated.
We're both fond of these two nut recipes: one sweet and zesty, the other sweet and spicy, and both wonderfully easy to make. If you can resist nibbling them all as they cool, bag them up as gifts in cellophane and ribbon. Both will keep well in sealed containers for a couple of weeks.

Orange sugared nuts
The book suggests walnuts and pecans, but pecans alone seem to better complement the sugary-orange crust, and they caramelize beautifully.
  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp grated orange rind (I use double the amount suggested in the book.)
Put all the ingredients in a heavy-based frying pan, and cook over a medium heat until the water has evaporated (about 8-10 minutes). Pour the nuts onto a greased baking sheet, separating them quickly with a fork, and leave to cool.

Spiced nuts
Adapted from the printed version, using a variety of nuts, and a slightly simpler method.
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tbsp water
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 lb mixed nuts (leave out brazil nuts)
Preheat oven to 140C. Whisk the egg white with the water in a clean bowl until foamy, but not stiff. In a large bowl, mix the sugar, allspice, cinnamon and salt together.

Put the nuts in the egg white and stir to coat thoroughly, then add them to the spice and sugar mixture. Toss well.

Pour onto a greased baking sheet, and cook for 20-25 minutes in the middle of the oven, stirring the nuts every 5 minutes to prevent them burning. Leave to cool.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Chilli oil: Hamper project no. 4

A special request from my brother-in-law. Notoriously hard to buy for, an opportunity to cater for his love of chillies was too good to miss. Bung a few fresh chillies in a bottle of oil? I wish it was that easy.

Preserve any herb or spice in oil and you run the risk of paralysing those who consume it with a severe case of food poisoning, known as botulism. As the legendary Harold McGee puts it, in his authoritative tome On Food and Cooking, "Oils encourage the growth of deadly Clostridium botulinum, whose spores can survive brief boiling and germinate when protected from the air." This put the fear of God in me. Clearly, some careful research was in order.

I won't bore you with the details, just summarise my findings:
  • Gently heating the oil helps eliminate bacteria.
  • Don't use fresh chillies if you want to keep it for longer than a week.
  • Use a light olive oil. There's no point splurging on fancy extra virgin: its flavour will be overwhelmed by that of the chilli.
  • Sterilise the bottles you intend to store the oil in.
  • Boil the whole dried ingredients in malt vinegar before adding them to the oil, to help eliminate any lingering bacteria.
  • Shake the flavoured oil, once bottled, to get rid of trapped air bubbles.
  • Don't add garlic to your chilli oil, as garlic provides enough nutrients for botulism to grow.
This is a recipe for Italian-style oil. For Asian chilli oil, substitute olive for flavourless groundnut/sunflower/rapeseed oil.

1 pint malt vinegar
2 cups olive oil
2 tsp crushed dried chillies
4 whole dried chillies (I bought mine - variety unnamed - at the local Chinese supermarket)

Sterilise the bottle(s). I wash mine in hot soapy water, then place them in a cool oven (tops removed if they have rubber seals), turn the oven to 150C and leave the bottles for 20 mins. Remove carefully, ensure they are completely dry, and set aside.

Boil the whole dried chillies in malt vinegar, fully submerged, for 10 mins. Drain on kitchen paper. Open the windows - boiling vinegar stinks! Those of you familiar with chutney-making will know what I'm talking about.

Place the olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat, and add the crushed and whole dried chillies. Warm through for 5 minutes (do not boil), remove from the heat, and leave to cool before bottling.

The longer you keep it, the hotter it will get. If you don't want it to get any hotter, after testing it a couple of weeks after making, strain out the chillies and re-bottle.

Store in a cool, dark place.