Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Cognac – fit for a king, or a cake

Pin It
If you ever find yourself in Cognac, I recommend a visit to the chateau of King Francois I of France – now the house of Otard Cognac.
Just add cognac, ice and tonic for a perfect day
The walls show the scars of the chateau’s chequered past. One of the most beautiful rooms in the castle was designed by Leonardo da Vinci, a good friend of Francois. This room has seen service as a prison, but these days, is used for banquets and concerts.
After the tour comes the tasting. We were told about the different grades of cognac and the more complex flavours that you can expect to taste in the amber liquid as you go up the scale. The bottles start at around €20 and rise very quickly to several hundred euro. When the saleswoman pointed out the really special stuff, an Australian lady in the group gave a shocked gasp.
‘OH! MY! GOD! I recognise those’, she said. ‘My late husband used to collect two bottles every time we went to Europe. But he’d never drink them, and he certainly never let me near them,’ she said, somewhat resentfully.

She told us that after his death, she had found his secret stash of breathtakingly expensive cognac and had been liberally dosing her fruit cakes with them! They had proved enormously popular, she added. No wonder, at about €50 a snifter! I had a feeling that this knowledge was not going to stop her adding cognac to her fruit cakes.
Simple but refreshing

Cognac is a marvellous cooking ingredient but as I am on hols, I have a very short recipe for you today – it’s my holiday drink and has the unromantic name of Cognac Tonic
In a tall glass, add a half measure of cognac, and top it up with ice and tonic. Cheers!
Pin It

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Strawberry and Orange Cream Cheese Cupcakes – the 3-second rule applies !

Pin It
 When my sister got married, she made a special request. Would I please, please, please make “that amazing carrot cake with the cream cheese frosting” as her wedding cake. While I’d never made a wedding cake before, I was delighted to oblige.
Strawberries and Cream Cheese - the perfect marriage!
The project got off to a bad start...  As I was transferring the largest of the cakes into the oven, the base fell out of the tin, dumping batter all over the bottom of the oven... the floor... my shoes... I made up some new swear words that day.

The hours to the wedding were ticking down so I rolled up my sleeves, gritted my teeth, and started again.
By next morning, the three tiers were baked and frosted. Before the ceremony, I went to the hotel to set up the cake. I had my list: Cake boards ... ü Ribbons ... ü Dowels ... ü Pillars ... ü Roses ... ü It was like a mini-construction site, complete with landscaping.  With the multi-storey cake set up and refrigerated, I went off to the ceremony, much relieved. Job done!
At the end of a wonderful meal, the cake was wheeled out. Was it just me... perhaps the champagne... or was there an ever so slightly Leaning Tower of Pisa look about the cake? Hmmmm...  


I Strawberries
Thankfully, the cake made it through the photos. I had turned back to chat to my fellow guests when I heard a collective gasp, followed by a soft thud, as if someone had fainted. I refused to look and moments later, the groom tapped me on the shoulder. “Great cake, Hester” he said, “but the engineering skills need work!”  Ooops! The light fluffy carrot cake just wasn't up to the task of supporting several kilos of pillars, and frosting, and roses and the layers of cake above it. (Doh!) Luckily there was enough in the surviving tier for everyone in the room.
Funnily enough, there was no sign of the fallen cake when the hotel staff arrived to clear it up. I have a sneaking suspicion that the 3-second rule was employed by the hungry boy children in the room.

Lower fat cupcakes: "Does my bun look big in this?"
For the most part, I’ve stuck to single-storey cakes since then, but my love of cream cheese has grown so much that as well as using it for frosting, I now put it in various cake batters in place of butter. It adds a whole new flavour dimension as well as cutting the fat content dramatically. Butter is about 81% - cream cheese is around 23%.
The 3-second rule applies to these cakes. In my experience, that’s about how long they remain on the plate J
For 12 cupcakes you will need:
150g Philadelphia Cream Cheese
150g caster sugar
3 eggs
Grated zest of an orange
150g plain flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

Pre-heat your fan oven to 160°C and line a 12-hole muffin tin with cupcake papers

1          In a mixing bowl, whisk the Philadelphia together with the sugar until smoothly blended. Add in the eggs and the orange zest and continue whisking until well combined.
2          Sprinkle in the flour and baking powder and continue whisking until the flour is incorporated into the mixture.
3          Divide the mixture between the 12 cupcake papers and transfer to the preheated oven.
4          Bake for 18 – 20 minutes or until risen and evenly golden.
5          Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Leave to cool completely before piping on the frosting.
For the cream cheese frosting you will need:
125g Philadelphia Cream Cheese
125g softened butter
325g icing sugar
1 punnet of fresh Irish strawberries

6          In a mixing bowl, whisk the Philadelphia together with the butter then slowly add in the icing sugar, whisking continuously until all the sugar has been incorporated and the mixture is smooth and thick. Transfer to a piping bag with a large star nozzle and refrigerate until needed.
7          To finish, pipe a swirl of frosting onto each cupcake and top with a fresh strawberry. Apply to face. Grin happily! 
Apply to face...
Pin It

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Bread – well, it’s Jim Lahey’s bread really...

Pin It
Robert Browning said “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens." Try saying “tastest” with a mouth full of bread J but he’s right. I could happily work my way through an entire loaf, warm from the oven and slathered with butter – fresh raspberry jam optional.
Flour, water, salt, yeast... and time

Bread has the power to win hearts and sell houses. When I say bread, I mean the sort made with love, not with industrial machinery.
In a recent giveaway, Absurd Baker very kindly sent me Jim Lahey’s My Bread: The revolutionary no-work, no-knead method. Jim is a man in love with bread. The introduction follows his progress from Tuscany in the ‘90s, through selling bread in a SoHo street market, to the Sullivan Street Bakery and beyond.
Bread in a pot - weird... but wonderful!
He talks about the ‘singing loaf’ in his overview of the method: the loaf crackles as it cools in the final and very important phase of baking as the damp crumb forces steam through the dry crust. Cut into the loaf before it sings and suffer average bread. Defer that pleasure until the bread has sung, for an entirely different experience.
I’ve made two of Jim Lahey's breads: the basic recipe and the Pane Integrale – a wholewheat version – both using his bread-in-a-pot method.
In some ways, if you’ve never made bread before, you have the advantage with this book because you are not comparing it to traditional kneaded doughs. In the recipes I’ve tried so far, I’ve found the dough alarmingly wet - almost porridgy. However, because this bread is no-knead, handling is minimal and the dough firms up a little as it rises. Lahey uses a mere 2 grams of yeast – a quarter of what I would normally use. 2 grams of yeast is sufficient because of the long rising time.

From porridgy dough to 'Pane' perfection
If you are a seasoned baker, hold your nerve. You think it’s not going to work out and the whole cook-it-in-a-pot thing is downright weird... but actually, it’s how my great-great-grandparents would have cooked their bread and the result is sensational. The basic loaf didn’t last long enough to be photographed.
After commenting that the finished Pane Integral looked like a cowpat (it is rather flat) my beloved helped me polish off half the loaf in one sitting. The crumb is open and even and the bread has real flavour despite having the most basic of ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.
I am going to work my way through this book: there is carrot bread, peanut bread, chocolate bread. There is foccacia, and pizza, and olive bread, and the book’s party pieces such as Stecca (next on my list to try). The book is illustrated with clear step-by-step photos where needed.
Absurb Baker, you said I’d enjoy this book. I LOVE it!

My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method by Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste
Published by W & W Norton and Co
ISBN 978-0-393-06630-2
Hardback
Pin It

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Boozy Eton Mess – A Celebration of Summer!

Pin It If you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting a Wexford strawberry that has been basking in rare Irish sunshine, then you’ll remember it as possibly the most strawberry-flavoured strawberry you’ve tasted in your life. Each perfect specimen looks like it was hand-picked to star in an advert for strawberry-related products. They are the super-models of the strawberry world.
Summer 2011 starts right now!
Fantastic as a no-effort dessert, Wexford strawberries and cream were my choice for one of the ‘afters’ at a recent family party. Madame Unexpected-But-Very-Welcome-Guest, the-mother-of-a-friend-of-my-sister’s, was deposited at my door the previous evening due to double-booking of rooms elsewhere. A sweet lady, she was determined to make herself useful as I bustled around the kitchen, hulling strawberries, preparing salads and generally not being a very good hostess.
Another fine mess...

Without a word of English, she gestured that she would whip cream for me. I gratefully accepted as there was about a litre of the stuff. The trouble is, I assume that people know – by osmosis - where everything is in my kitchen, so when I turned around 10 minutes later, I was surprised to find that poor Madame, sweat dripping from her forehead, had bypassed my trusty stand mixer and was whipping the cream by hand. I pointed to the mixer – not sure she knew what it was – and said in that voice that is reserved for poor cross-language communication “IF ... YOU... PUT ... THE ... CREAM... IN ... THERE... – MUCH FASTER. Plus Vite, I added for good measure, feeling rather pleased with my command of French. The poor lady looked at me with a large measure of confusion and a sprinkling of anxiety, and quizzically confirmed the instruction ...“errr... faster?” When I nodded, she started whipping the cream at a rate that rendered her hand a blur.
I'm from Wexford too!
Confiscating the whisk, I sat her down and made her an Irish coffee while the cream was whisked to soft peaks by mechanical means. She, in turn, confiscated the strawberries and made them the star of the show with this slightly boozy version of Eton Mess, a silly name for one of the easiest, most summery desserts in the world. I can’t think of anything more appropriate to celebrate the start of Summer 2011. Happy May Day!

For 2 Summery servings you will need:
300g ripe strawberries
1 – 2 tablespoons icing sugar
1 – 2 tablespoons Strawberry/Raspberry liqueur (Crème de Fraise/Crème de Framboise)
1 ½ - 2 individual ready-made meringue nests, chopped into small bite-sized pieces
125mls double cream, whipped to soft peaks

Fresh mint leaves and 2 perfect strawberries to decorate

1          Start by cutting the strawberries into smallish bite-sized pieces. Place 200g of the chopped strawberries in a mixing bowl. In another bowl, roughly mash the remaining 100g of strawberries and mix in the icing sugar and the strawberry/raspberry liqueur. (You could use a teaspoon of vanilla extract if you prefer). Add to the bowl of chopped strawberries and mix gently.
2          Spoon a little of the strawberry mixture into two beautiful glasses or Sundae dishes.
3          Gently stir the meringue pieces through the whipped cream, followed by about half the remaining strawberry mixture.
4          Spoon some of the cream mixture in the glasses, and add a layer of the strawberry mixture. Continue layering until you have used up both mixtures, finishing with a final layer of the cream mixture.
5          Decorate with the mint leaves and a perfect strawberry.
Wexford Strawberries hard at work soaking up the sunshine

This can be eaten straight away, but I prefer to leave it in the fridge for about an hour to allow the flavours to meld – alchemy at work.
GXBM8778JJ3W Pin It