Sunday, April 28, 2013

Buttermilk Muffins (the English sort) – it’d be a crime not to make them!

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Muffins (the English sort) incite criminal behaviour, apparently. Last week in Northport, NY, a homeowner called the police to report a burglary. According to the alleged victim, the backdoor lock had been tampered with and two packets of Thomas’s English Muffins had been stolen.

Here’s what I think happened: The female ‘victim’ had come home from the gym... Ravenous after a vigorous workout, the muffins were so tempting that she sat down and scoffed the whole dozen by herself... She then concocted the story to save face because she knew the muffins she’d promised the family for supper had been the last in the local foodstore...

Hey! The thief has been here too!

Samuel Bath Thomas first started producing these popular little breads at his bakery in New York in 1880, giving rise (no pun intended) to the idea that they were an American invention. However, he used his mother’s recipe – which he had brought from England five years earlier – so he was standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak.

In 1747, Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy featured similar yeasted griddle breads. In her recipe, she warns “don't touch them with a knife, either to spread or cut them open, if you do they will be as heavy as lead”. She suggests tearing them open with your hands. If you don’t have asbestos fingers, you could open them up with a fork. This preserves the very delicate structure of the bread creating a fantastic butter-trap for those who are fearless in the face of the odd calorie or 5,000. It also creates a rough surface for incredible toast and a base for Eggs Benedict to die for.

If the ‘thief’ happens to be reading, below is my recipe for Buttermilk Muffins. They are so easy and use store cupboard ingredients. Perhaps it will save such desperate measures in future...

For a dozen or so irresistible muffins (of the English sort) you will need...
500g strong white flour
1 x 7g sachet of fast-acting dried yeast
1 teaspoon fine table salt
250mls buttermilk, tepid (you may need slightly buttermilk more if the flour is very absorbent)
1 teaspoon runny honey

A little corn meal or plain flour for dusting
A little sunflower oil to grease the frying pan 

In a large mixing bowl (or stand mixer), mix together the flour, yeast and salt. In a separate container, mix the tepid buttermilk and honey before adding to the flour mixture. Mix until the dough comes together in a smooth ball that leaves the bowl clean. If any dry flour remains, add a little more buttermilk. If using a stand mixer, mix for about 2 minutes with the dough hook. If making this by hand, turn the ball of dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for about 2 minutes. (To knead, fold the dough in half, then holding it in place with one hand, use the heel of the other hand to stretch the dough away from you, along the floured surface. Again fold it, rotate it about 1/8th of a turn and again press it away from you with the heel of your hand. Repeat for about 2 minutes knowing you are giving your arms a great workout which will enable you to have second helpings...) Return the dough to the bowl. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave in a warm, draught-free place to rise until doubled in size (about an hour and a half). You can leave this to rise overnight in the fridge if you prefer, where it will rise much slower. The key is that the dough doubles in size.

Roll the risen dough out to a thickness of about 1.5cm. Sprinkle a tray or baking sheet with corn meal or a little flour to prevent the muffins from sticking. Using a 6cm (3 inch) circular cutter, cut out as rounds of dough. You can knead together any scraps if necessary, re-roll and cut. However, try and cut your dough so that you get most of the muffins from the virgin dough as re-rolled scraps tend to form slightly misshapen, rustic-looking muffins.  Cover loosely with cling film. Leave to rise again in a warm, draught-free place for about 30 minutes, or until puffed up and doubled in height.

Now, heat a large frying pan (with a lid) over a medium heat. Rub it with a little sunflower oil and gently transfer a batch of muffins to the pan, leaving about 3cms between them. Cover with the lid.

After about 3 or 4 minutes gently slide a spatula under the muffins to see if they have browned. If not, continue cooking and check again after a minute or so. When the bases have browned, gently turn the muffins over and continue cooking on the other side for about 3 or 4 minutes, or until they too have browned. Transfer to a cooling rack, or, more likely, to waiting plates.

As Hannah Glasse warns, don’t cut them with a knife. It makes them ‘claggy’ as the steam condenses on the cold metal. Tear them open with your hands or ease apart with a fork.

Taste tester verdict: “Best I’ve ever tasted”. This comment was backed up by him taking second helpings, twice! 
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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cottage Pie with Potato Slates - low-brow but lovely!

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I love, love, love pretty, primped, posh food - the sort that Neven Maguire does in his restaurant. You know, trio of this, ballotine of that. And while I’m not crazy about foams, I'll happily mop up every last atom of a jus or a reduction - with a suitably high-brow crust of bread, obviously! If a foodstuff is creamed, candied or caramelised, I’m there. A bisque, a carpaccio, an assiette? You bet!
However, sometimes you just need no-nonsense rib-sticking comfort food. The second-coldest winter on record has given me plenty of opportunity to make Cottage Pie. There is nothing like it to chase the Winter blues away. 

While I love this pie topped with rich buttery mash, it can pile on the pounds so this is my low(er) calorie, low brow version with potato slates. As it is stuffed full of vegetables, it needs no accompaniment (except perhaps a low-brow blob of HP or Chef Brown Sauce). In an ironic nod to posh food you could make it in individual portions.

For 4 – 6 portions of no-nonsense rib-sticking Cottage Pie you will need...
... to pre-heat the oven to 180°C when ready to bake the pie
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions (about the size of a tennis ball), finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, peeled of stringy fibres, finely chopped
1 fat clove of garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
500g of the best minced beef you can afford (make friends with your butcher and get him to mince some round steak while you wait.)
200mls good beef stock
100mls red wine
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons oxtail soup-mix (the low brow ingredient)
75mls cold water 

500g smallish evenly-sized potatoes (prepared weight) peeled and cut into ½ cm slices
2 large handfuls of fresh spinach, shredded (optional)
100g cheddar cheese, grated
50g parmesan cheese, finely grated 

Low-brow but lovely!

In a medium frying pan over a medium heat, heat half the olive oil. Add the chopped onion, carrot, and celery and cook gently without colouring, until the onions are soft and translucent –6 – 8 minutes. Add the crushed garlic and thyme and cook for a further minute. Transfer to a bowl and return the pan to the heat.
Add the rest of the olive oil and the minced beef and fry until the mince has browned.
Return the cooked vegetables to the pot, along with the beef stock, wine and chopped parsley. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes while you prepare the potato slate.
For the potato slates, place the potato slices in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until easily pierced with a knife but not falling apart. Drain and allow to cool sufficiently to be handled.
While the potatoes are cooling, thicken the meat filling by blending the oxtail soup-mix with the water until smooth and stirring into the simmering meat. Cook for a further 5 minutes then remove from the heat. Transfer to a large pie dish or divide between 4 – 6 individual pie dishes. Pre-heat the oven now, while you finish preparing the pie.
Cover the meat filling with the shredded spinach (optional) and arrange the slices of potato on top in overlapping rows, like the slates of a roof – it is Cottage Pie, after all. Sprinkle with the grated cheeses. Place the dish(es) on a baking tray to catch any juices that may bubble over, and bake in the preheated oven for 25 - 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and the filling bubbling hot.
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