Simple things | Radishes with butter and salt

24 April 2015

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Pleasures of spring. The weather entices away from kitchen and stoves. Eating becomes simpler. Food speaks for itself, cooking takes a sidestep.

This could be breakfast; an afternoon snack; apéro bites; the start of dinner. With a slice of good bread.

It’s just a reminder.

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Two chocolate cakes

17 April 2015

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I only just recently happened upon these two chocolate cakes, and already they are indispensable.

Until now I had little need for chocolate cake. I rarely make it, because I rarely crave it; when, about once a year, I do long for a chocolate dessert, I bake these really good brownies. For years my children didn’t care much for chocolate cake. Until Louise.

In this decidedly un-chocolatey family, Louise loves chocolate. Worse things happen. So for this little one’s birthday, I needed a chocolate cake recipe. I found two.

One is an intense though surprisingly light dessert; the faultless chocolate touch at the end of a lingering meal. The other is cakey and moist but not too crumbly; slices hold together well in clumsy little hands. It could be stacked into layers with cream or cherry jam. A flawless tea-time cake.

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The flourless, almond olive-oil chocolate cake, which I discovered via the same friend who pointed me toward the revelatory date cookies (food-obsessed friends are the best kind), beat all expectations. It is light and predictably nutty, perfectly moist with a bare hint of olive. Also ridiculously easy to make. The recipe, by Nigella Lawson, also happens to be wheat and dairy free, which bears mentioning. The recipe is here, as I have not altered it one bit.

I found the second cake in a cookbook from which, until now, I had never actually cooked. Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food. It is the perfect party cake. Pointedly described as ‘moist and versatile,’ and which ‘can be made in any format from cupcakes to a multitiered wedding cake.’ I had intended an extra chocolatey frosting, but time ran out so it was just a dusting of icing sugar and plenty of smarties.

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Chocolate cake for a party by Alice Waters The Art of Simple Food

115 g (4 ounces) unsweetened (or very dark) chocolate

2 cups flour

2 tsps baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

6 Tbsps (unsweetened) cocoa powder

115 g (8 Tbsps) butter plus more to butter the pan

2 1/2 cups brown sugar

2 tsps vanilla extract

3 eggs

120 ml (1/2 cup) buttermilk

300 ml (1 1/4 cup) boiling water

Preheat the oven to 170°C (350°F) and take the butter, eggs, and buttermilk out of the refrigerator to soften and bring to room temperature.

Line the bottom of the cake pan with parchment paper. Butter both the pan and the paper, and dust the paper with flour or cocoa powder, shaking out any excess.

Heat some water in a large frying pan/skillet. Roughly chop up the chocolate, place it in a heat proof bowl, and slowly melt it over the water bath (bain marie), stirring occasionally, until just melted and smooth. Remove from the heat.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. Set aside.

In a large bowl (or stand mixer), beat the butter until creamy. Add the sugar and vanilla extract and continue beating until light and fluffy. Whisk in the eggs one at a time and stir until fully incorporated.

Stir in the melted chocolate. Add half of the dry ingredients and combine. Stir in the buttermilk. Then add the other half of the dry ingredients.

Finally, gradually pour in the boiling water, until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared bake tin, slide carefully into the preheated oven as the batter will be fairly liquid, and bake for about 45 min, until a knife of skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean with just a  crumb or two attached.

Allow the cake to cool completely before turning it out of the tin. (The cake keeps well. If not using immediately, leave in the tin and cover tightly with aluminum paper.)

Date cookies

13 March 2015

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I have three most vivid food memories of Jerusalem, which I visited nearly twenty years ago: yemeni malawach, a thick deliciously greasy flaky pancake served hot with raw crushed tomatoes and za’atar; addictive sachlab, a thick drink so unctuous and sickly sweet that it at once repels and keeps you coming back for more; and the date cookies from Damascus gate.

It was the spring of 1997 and I spent a few weeks in Israel visiting a friend — not ‘a’ friend, my oldest childhood friend, my next door neighbor for years, my daily play companion. She was studying in Jerusalem, so, apart from a few days around Purim during which we traveled together to the Sinai, and a few days when I ventured North alone, I spent most of those three weeks in Jerusalem, wandering. I paced the old city endlessly. Memories fade but snapshots remains. I remember the stones, the steps, the incline, the precarious wiring, the satellite dishes. I took the back way, I met mostly children. I was often halfway lost. Inevitably, the streets washed me toward Damascus gate, the buoyant pulse of Old Jerusalem.

There, a few paces removed from the falafel stands, standing alone, a little closer to the gate, was a cart piled high with date cookies.

I think I bought just one or two at first, to try. I came home with a very large bag. And although Tamara didn’t care for them, a few days later I was back for more. And then again to take some back to Berlin. This was nearly twenty years ago.

Here in London the other day a friend mentioned date bars. Then promptly — as she is wont to do — forwarded the recipe link. These are not the date cookies of Damascus gate, but, in a Proustian twist, they have transported me back to a forgotten moment, a faraway place, a cherished time, a magical trip.

Dan Lepard’s date bars share the Jerusalem cookies’ best qualities. They are subtle and layered, the understated flavors develop slowly and get under your palate. I cannot stop eating them.

Dan Lepard’s date bars (Click on the link for the recipe)

NOTE: I made just two slight adjustments:

I used only 15ml each of rose water and orange-blossom water because the ones I have are quite potent and I did not want the perfume to be overpowering. I would suggest tasting the dough and adjusting the amount accordingly.

Also, I cut the bars into 2cm (1-inch) pieces as I preferred a cookie feel rather than the larger bars.

Brilliant pork belly with star anise, cinnamon, ginger and cloves

12 February 2015

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Imagine unctuously slow-cooked pork belly infused with the intoxicating aromas of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, chilli, and coriander. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The recipe is a brilliant one by Skye Gyngell, to which — if I may — I did make one substantial improvement: crackling.

The initial method slices the gently simmered pork and browns each individual rib in a pan. I found this impractical. I’d much rather be clinking glasses with friends than browning meat in the kitchen. Also, dare I serve pork belly with no crackling? So I improvised a little and shot two inconveniences with one rather practical idea: rather than searing the meat, why not slide it into the oven for a second low and slow roasting. Boom!

Pork belly with star anise, ginger, cinnamon and cloves
Adapted from A Year In My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell. The process is a lengthy one but hardly requires any hands on work. Plan with a minimum of 4 hours before serving time.

2 kg piece of best quality pork belly

2 cinnamon sticks

3 star anise

1 tsp cloves

1 red chilli

4 cm (1 1/2 inch) piece fresh ginger root

6 garlic cloves

2 Tbsps coriander stems (and roots if available)

100 ml (1/2 cup) tamari soy sauce

75 ml (1/3 cup) maple syrup

Sea salt and black pepper

Place the pork belly in a pot large enough for it to lie horizontally quite snugly. Add cold water to cover. Bring to the boil, then immediately remove from the heat, drain the water, and rinse out the pot.

Return the pork belly to the clean pot (skin side up), cover again with cold water, and add the cinnamon, star anise, cloves, chilli, peeled and roughly sliced ginger, peeled garlic cloves, and roughly chopped coriander stems (and roots). Bring to the boil then turn the heat down to very low, and let the pork simmer gently for about 1 1/2 hours.

With a pare of tongs carefully take the meat out of the pan and place it onto an ovenproof dish. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve the liquid which will be made into an incredible sauce (see below).

**The meat can rest a while or be refrigerated overnight at this point. Preferably take it out of the refrigerator about an hour before using again.**

Approximately 2 hours before planning to serve, place the pork belly in a 300°F (150°C) oven and roast for 1 1/2 hours. Check after one hour; if the skin isn’t crispy enough, increase the temperature to 375°F (190°C) for the last 20 to 30 minutes. Take the pork out of the oven and let rest for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make the sauce, add the tamari and maple syrup to the fragrant cooking water, turn the heat back on to high, and let it boil away for a good half hour until the liquid has reduced by about half to become a dark and rich sauce. When it has acquired to the desired consistency, remove from the heat and strain out the spices, pouring the sauce into a smaller saucepan ready to be easily reheated later.

Serve the pork belly with the thoroughly reheated, piping hot sauce.

Marmalade

3 February 2015

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I didn’t really think it through. I entered the shop and ordered two kilos of Seville oranges. An impulse buy, as one might pick up a pair of gloves while waiting in the checkout line — though one with momentous consequences.

Is it the Paddington effect? Was I surreptitiously inspired by photos of glowing jars posted online by a friend? Did I unwittingly yearn for a stockpile to appease the marmalade-devouring members of the family? Am I becoming British?

Whichever the cause, the effect was me trudging home with a big bag of bitter oranges. So I went in search of a recipe.

I first turned to the usual suspect: the jam fairy Christine Ferber. But Ferber uses a significant amount of granny smith apples in her bitter orange marmalade. Her recipes often call for apples, used to extract a pectin rich jelly that later helps to shorten the cooking time thus allowing for a more vibrant fruit taste. Apples in marmalade? Tut tut, my budding speckles of Britishness balked at the idea. I had to look elsewhere.

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So on to Nigel Slater, whose piece in The Guardian a few years ago could be considered essential reading for anyone about to embark on a marmalade adventure. Slater beautifully captures the fastidious joy of making marmalade, all the while slyly cautioning those who might derive anything less than pure pleasure from the unwieldy process to stay away. Marmalade making must be relished, or not at all.

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It becomes quickly clear that there are as many marmalade recipes as there are makers of marmalade. I read a number of methods, chose one which seemed to suit me best, as much in the actual process as the expected outcome, and altered it slightly, of course.

The recipe is a mild adaptation from one in the River Café Cookbook Green.
There are no quantities because the amount of sugar is calculated in proportion to the weight of cooked fruit. I used 2 lemons for 2.2kg of oranges, one would suffice for a smaller amount.

Seville oranges

Caster sugar

1 or 2 untreated lemons

Wash the oranges and let them soak 12 to 48 hours in cold water. Drain and rinse.

Place the oranges in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, cover with cold water, and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the saucepan with a lid slightly askew and simmer the oranges for 3 to 4 hours until they are completely soft. Stir the oranges occasionally (they float and only part of each orange remains submerged at any one time). Be careful that the liquid doesn’t evaporate completely. Add a little water if necessary. There should remain 1 to 2 cm of liquid at the end.

Let the softened oranges cool enough to handle and set the saucepan with the cooking liquid aside.

Cut each orange in half, take out all the seeds and any rough fibres, then very thinly slice the rind together with the pulp. Weigh tall this skin and pulp and return to the saucepan (still with the liquid). Measure an equal quantity of sugar, add to the saucepan. Wash the lemon(s), cut them in half, then slice as thinly as possible in half moons. Add those to the saucepan too.

Return the fruit and sugar to the heat and gently bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to mix well and prevent from sticking. Simmer for about 30 minutes, until the jam is set (to test, spoon a small amount of jam liquid into a small bowl and place in the refrigerator: if a skin forms, the jam is setting.)

Let the jam cool slightly before spooning into sterilized jars.


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