Friday, April 27, 2012

Asparagus – a feast of ferns !

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Over the years, several strange gifts have appeared on my doorstep. Once, just after moving into a new home, the doorstep vanished under a stunning 12ft Christmas tree ... I took an educated guess and reciprocated with homemade mince pies, wonderful neighbour.
Less delightfully... in a different house on a stormy Hallowe’en, I went to answer a loud knock at the door. There, glowing eerily in the darkness, was a large, elaborately carved Jack-O-Lantern, complete with flickering candle. That was plain spooky, particularly given how isolated the house was. I slammed and double-locked the door.
Apart from the odd tray of seedlings/bottle of Baileys from the neighbours, nothing unexpected or mysterious has appeared on my last few doorsteps ... until this week. Just as I was craving healthy greens, there appeared a bouquet of asparagus. I am utterly clueless as to where this beautiful bouquet came from, but I know exactly how I am going to deal with it.
I am going to bend each fat fern until it snaps, leaving a woody stalk (for vegetable stock) and a tender spear.
My No. 1 way of cooking asparagus:
I am going to take enough spears to feed two people, anoint them with extra virgin olive oil, spread them in a single layer on a baking tray, sprinkle on some Maldon sea salt and a twist of black pepper and roast them at 180°C until the tips start to crisp and brown – about 10 minutes - to be eaten immediately, forks optional.

Awesome asparagus!
 The rest of this gorgeous bouquet of ferns will be lightly pickled in olive oil and lemon juice as follows:
275mls white wine vinegar
225mls extra virgin olive oil
100 mls freshly squeezed lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon, cut into large strips. (try to avoid the white pith as this can be very bitter)
3 or 4 sprigs of fresh mint
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fine table salt
500g asparagus spears

You will also need a 1 litre sterilised jar (run it through the dishwasher, or wash it thoroughly and dry it in the oven at 100°C).

1                    Place all the ingredients except the asparagus, in a large saucepan over a medium heat and bring to the boil, stirring once or twice to make sure the sugar has dissolved.
2                    When the mixture is boiling carefully add the asparagus spears. Cover the saucepan with a lid and continue to let the mixture bubble for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
3                    Transfer the hot asparagus to the jar, then pass the liquid through a strainer, into the jar to cover the asparagus. Leave to cool before sealing. Store in the fridge for up to two weeks, although it is ready to eat straight away – as a starter, or added to salad. Allow to come back to room temperature before serving to get the full delicious asparagus/lemon flavour. The pickling juice also makes an unusual salad dressing. 

Pickled asparagus won't win any beauty contests but your tastebuds will love it!
Pickled asparagus isn’t going to win any beauty contests but oh, your tastebuds will love it!
Cork World Book Fest Food Blogging Workshop - I had a blast in Cork last weekend giving the food blogging workshop. It was booked out despite the nasty weather and it was a delight to meet both seasoned and fledgling bloggers and to see that the Irish Food Bloggers Association was well represented. A huge thank you to my hosts, Cork City Libraries, and their awesome librarian, Ann Riordan!
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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chocolate Éclairs - a 'First Class' Pastry !

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'First Class' pastries...

For years I thought ‘excursion’ was a euphemism for “let’s take the kids out and see if we can’t all catch pneumonia”. You see, I often visited my Gran for summer holidays in Cork, and she would mastermind 'excursions' to the charming seaside town of Cobh for me and my million-or-so cousins.
This was always a recipe for great excitement – cousins you hadn’t seen in a year, a train journey through beautiful countryside, the anticipation of a picnic, the seaside. What more could a bunch of kids want!
No matter how blue the sky started out, it always, always, always lashed rain before we got home. I think Cobh has a special soak-you-to-the-skin kind of rain - although we Irish seem peculiarly unable to dress for the prevailing weather so maybe that has something to do with it too.
I returned to Cobh recently to meet my beloved’s Californian relatives whose cruise liner had docked for the day. As we waved goodbye, it struck me that almost a hundred years ago, Titanic had been waved off from the same dock.
Apart from the Titanic anniversary, I have a special reason for mentioning Cork this week. I am delighted to be running a food blogging workshop next Saturday for Cork City Libraries as part of their World Book Fest Constant Reader programme. If you are in the area, drop in. Free tickets for the event can be booked here.
In keeping with the Cork/Titanic theme, Chocolate Éclairs were on the First Class menu that fateful night of 14th April, 1912. If I’d been on board Titanic and somehow managed to sneak into First Class, these are what I would have pinched off the dessert trolley.
For 8 – 10 éclairs you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 180°C
Choux Pastry
150mls water
50g butter, cut into cubes
70g strong white flour/plain flour
a pinch of fine table salt
2 large eggs beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

300mls of fresh cream, whipped
1 tablespoon of icing sugar (sifted)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Simply mix these three ingredients together to make the filling.

100g good quality dark chocolate, melted

1                    Heat the water and butter together in a medium saucepan until the butter has melted and the liquid is simmering
2                    Remove from the heat, then carefully tip the flour and salt into the liquid in one go. Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together in a soft smooth ball of paste and no dry flour remains. Spread the ball of paste over the bottom of the saucepan and leave to cool to room temperature.
3                    When the paste has cooled, add the vanilla extract to the beaten egg, then add the egg to the paste a little at a time, whisking well between additions. An electric whisk is best for this job. You want a smooth glossy soft paste that will hold its shape so check the mixture as you go along as you may not need to add all the egg.
4                    Transfer the mixture to a piping bag with a 1.5cm plain nozzle and pipe lines approximately 10cm long onto a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment, leaving approximately 6cm between pastries. Transfer to the oven. Bake for approximately 20-25 minutes or until evenly golden brown. Remove from the oven and poke a small horizontal slit in the side of each pastry to release some steam. Return to the oven for a further 2 minutes before removing to cool on a wire rack.
5                    Assemble the éclairs just before serving: slice them in half horizontally and fill with the flavoured whipped cream. Drizzle a little melted chocolate over each.  

Tip: Pop a roasting tray with a handful of ice cubes into the bottom of the oven a few minutes before putting the pastries in to bake. This helps create a steamy atmosphere and helps the pastry to puff up beautifully.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Honeycomb – a Schoolgirl Crush that has Lasted and Lasted !

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I think many of my schoolmates will remember one of our science teachers – Mr Divine (uh huh!). Although he seemed ancient at the time, he was barely out of school himself and maybe that’s why he was among the few that were able to connect with a class of unruly 12 year-olds.
He set up experiments that interested us – distilling Poitín for instance, or manufacturing lipstick.  My favourite experiment seemed like alchemy to me – he combined a few simple ingredients, added heat, and made a huge bubbling mass of honeycomb. I think more than a few of us fell in love with Mr Divine that particular day.

While my schoolgirl crush on Mr Divine has long since disappeared, my love for this sweet treat has lasted and lasted.
For a sweet treat practically conjured out of thin air you will need...
200g caster sugar
100g honey
2 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon fine table salt
1 ½ teaspoons bicarbonate of soda 

1                  Line a 21cm (8”) square tin with non-stick parchment paper.
2                  Weigh the sugar and honey directly into a saucepan large enough for the mixture to expand up to 5 times its original volume. Add the water, vinegar and salt and heat gently until all the ingredients have melted together.
3                  Now, turn up the heat and let the mixture bubble without stirring (stirring can recrystalise sugar (although, feel free to give the saucepan the odd swirl if you like.) If you have a sugar thermometer it should reach ‘hard-crack’ (149° - 154°C or 300°F  - 310°F. If you are working by eye, let the mixture bubble until it is a dark golden honey colour. Do not go to answer the door. Do not pick up the phone. This stuff is hot and will burn the instant you take your eyes off it.

Do not pick up the phone! Do not answer the door! This stuff WILL burn.

4                  Have a whisk ready for the next step: Remove the saucepan from the heat, and quickly add the bicarbonate of soda. Give the mixture a quick stir to disperse the bicarbonate – it will foam up impressively. Quickly pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Resist the urge to spread it out as you’ll only pop the bubbles. It is self-leveling.
5                  Allow to cool – when nearly cool you can score it with a knife if you want to break it into regular shapes or simply break it into pieces when cold.  Store in an airtight container and use within 24 - 48 hours, particularly if the weather is humid.

Here's to the little guy who made it all possible!

While this honeycomb is rather good just as is, here are two more ways to enjoy it.
Melt 150 dark chocolate and give the cooled honeycomb a bath. Allow excess chocolate to drip off before letting the chocolately pieces set on non-stick parchment paper.
Take a tub of good vanilla ice cream out of the freezer and let it soften before stirring in a handful of finely chopped honeycomb and returning to the freezer to firm up.
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