Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lamington Biscuits – nothing “poofy” or “woolly” about these, Sir!

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Like many famous dishes, the true origins have been lost in a tangle of legends. One popular explanation for the creation of the Lamington goes like this. A maidservant in the house of Lord Lamington, a Governor of Queensland, accidentally dropped the Governor’s favourite cake, a vanilla sponge, into chocolate, and the Governor suggested dipping it in coconut to avoid messy fingers. Hmmmm. Given that the Governor apparently referred to them as "those bloody poofy woolly biscuits" this seems unlikely.
Another story suggests that Lamington’s chef improvised a dessert for unexpected visitors by dipping leftover cake into chocolate and covering it with coconut. As the lord apparently hated waste, this seems more likely. Who knows!
I had set out to make Lamingtons to mark Australia day but reading about Lamington, he seemed such a disagreeable chap, and I wasn’t inspired. Instead, I have taken the flavours and turned them into a biscuit (cookie).
I have two reasons for using fresh coconut. The first is that a fresh coconut has been sitting on the kitchen table for the last month, begging to be used before it ossifies; and the second is that it plays such a starring role in these cookies that tender fresh coconut is much more preferable to the chewy desiccated stuff. These delicate lacy biscuits manage to be chewy and crisp at the same time. I’m sure Lord Lamington would heartily disapprove.

For approximately 1 dozen biscuits you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 180°C

125g butter
75g caster sugar
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
a pinch of sea salt
150g plain flour
50g fresh coconut, coarsely grated
60g dark chocolate, chopped into pea-sized bits (you will be rolling the dough to a thickness of about 4mm so the chocolate pieces shouldn't be any larger than this) 

1                    Place the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl (or stand mixer) and beat together until fluffy and lighter in colour. Add in the vanilla extract and salt and beat until combined.
2                    Add the flour and beat until the mixture comes together in a ball.
3                    Add the coconut and chocolate and mix until distributed throughout the dough.
4                    Roll out on a floured work surface to a thickness of about 4mm. Cut into whatever shape you desire using a floured cookie cutter.
5                    Place on a baking sheet leaving plenty of space between the biscuits as they spread out. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes or until lightly golden.
6                     Remove from the oven and leave to set for about 3 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. If you try to transfer them immediately they are lightly to fall to pieces, delicate little things that they are.
7                     When cool, dust with icing sugar 

I gave these to my coconut-detesting taste tester without mentioning the hated ingredient. The verdict: “Mmmm... mmmmmmmmmmmmm – even if they have got coconut in them!” Score! 

Happy Australia Day!
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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Light Mussel Chowder – thanks Neptune !

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When I was about sixteen, I was in a restaurant with my parents, politely doing battle with a bowl of mussels - and losing. A large party of foreign tourists (Dutch, I think) was just leaving, when one of the men stopped at our table. “Allow me,” he said, taking the fork from my surprised fingers. He replaced it with one of my discarded mussel shells, “This is a gift from Neptune,” he explained, and demonstrated that I should use it, tweezer-like, to tug the mussel from its shell. Much easier! Thank you, rather cheeky but kind stranger. It’s how I’ve tackled this shellfish ever after.

I love the briny flavour of mussels, so redolent of the seaside. They are at their best over the winter months and are usually relatively cheap as shellfish go. They are highly perishable so eat them as soon as you can after purchase, or within 24 hours.
I adore them a la Marinière with frites of course, and lots of French bread to mop up the precious juices. Lately though, this is how I’ve been cooking them:
For 4 servings redolent of the seaside you will need...
100mls dry cider (or dry white wine)
100mls water
1kg mussels, rinsed several times in cold water to remove excess grit and sand 

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons of parsley stems, very finely chopped
1 stick of celery, peeled of stringy bits, and finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 fat clove of garlic, very finely chopped
2 medium potatoes, cut into 1cm dice
approximately 250mls chicken stock
a pinch of saffron* soaked in 2 tablespoons of hot water for at least 20 minutes
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon corn flour dissolved in 1 tablespoon of cold water 

2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley leaf 


1                    First prepare the mussels: Discard any with broken shells and any open mussels that fail to close when rapped sharply. Mussels use a fibrous tangle of threads (or beard) to anchor themselves. Tug sharply on the beard in the direction of the hinge (the narrow part of the shell) to remove it. For this dish, I don’t bother removing any barnacles that cling to the shells as I’m going to discard them once the mussels are cooked.
2                    Pour the cider (or wine) and water into a large saucepan and bring to the boil over a high heat. When the liquid is boiling, tip in the mussels and cover with a lid. Boil rapidly, occasionally shaking the pan back and forth over the heat so that the fragrant steam cooks the mussels evenly. It will take 3 or 4 minutes for the mussels to cook. The shells will open when they are done.
3                    Remove from the heat and tip into a colander over a bowl to catch the juices. Remove the mussels from their shells (using ‘Neptune’s tweezers’) and set aside. Strain the juices into a 1 litre measuring jug to remove any bits of sand or grit (I usually get about 500mls of liquid from this quantity of mussels). Add enough chicken stock to make the liquid up to 750mls.
4                    Rinse the saucepan clean and place it back on the hob over a medium heat. Heat the olive oil then add the parsley stems, celery, and onion and cook without colouring until the onion is soft and translucent (about 5 – 7 minutes).
5                    Add the garlic and cook for a further minute before adding the potato. Pour in the mussel juices, strain the golden liquid from the saffron into the pan, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for about 12 minutes or until you can easily crush a potato cube with the back of a fork. Stir in the corn flour and cook for a minute or so until the soup thickens slightly. (If you want a thicker chowder, lightly crush the potato cubes with a potato masher).
6                    Add the mussel meat and chopped parsley leaf to the chowder and allow to heat through for a minute or so. Taste and add a little black pepper. I don’t add salt. The chowder is usually salty enough from the mussels. Serve with this quick and easy fresh soda bread. 

Note: The saffron doesn’t make much difference to the flavour but improves the look of the dish no end, so put it in if you have it.
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