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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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mini Chocolate Malteser Cupcakes - one is never enough !

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I and my siblings have inherited a sixth-sense from our da: the ability to sniff out a gram of chocolate at fifty paces. It’s been useful over the years, tracking down lost boxes of Bournville and missing multi-packs of Flake that my mother had put “somewhere safe” and then forgotten. At this stage, we know every chocolate hidey hole in my parents’ home and, although we are by no means chocoholics, if someone mentions the magic word, chocolate of one description or another can be uncovered within minutes.
Only... I seem to be losing my touch. I was all set to make a savoury dish for today’s post. The text was written and I was assembling the ingredients when I was ambushed by a giant bag of Maltesers which leapt out of the cupboard at me.  I thought I had Spring-cleaned the house of Christmas excess, ready for healthy salads, and fruit. Somehow, this bag of temptation had remained hidden. Perhaps the packaging is sniff-proof. Now what am I going to do?

Well... we all know that mini cupcakes have no calories J... and it is a perfect opportunity to put into practice an idea which I got from pal, Jan Thorpe, over Christmas – a cake stuffed with Maltesers. Thanks Jan, great idea!
These mini bites are in the oven as I type and the house smells like a chocolate beacon. Any minute now there will be a knock at the door and I will find my six chocolate-seeking siblings standing there...

Update: these little cakes exist in two states - they are warm and melty from the oven, mmmmmm. However, when completely cooled the Maltesers re-solidify providing a delicious crunchy contrast. You must try both states.

For approximately 36 irresistible little chocolate bites you will need...
... mini-muffin trays and paper liners (or non-stick mini-muffin trays)

150g butter at room temperature
150g caster sugar
3 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
100g plain flour
50g good quality cocoa powder
6g baking powder
approximately 36 Maltesers

a little icing sugar for dusting, (or see note below*)

Pre-heat your fan oven to 160°C and line the muffin tins with mini-muffin papers 
I pipe the mixture in for convenience but a spoon will do just as well.

1.                  In a mixing bowl, beat the butter together with the sugar until lighter in colour and fluffy (3 – 5 minutes using an electric mixer). Add in the eggs one at a time, mixing very well between additions. (If you add the egg too fast the mixture will curdle and result in a heavier cake – not the end of the world, but if you exercise patience this can be avoided).
2.                  When the eggs have been combined with the butter/sugar mixture, add the vanilla extract and sprinkle in the flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder and continue beating until these dry ingredients are incorporated into the mixture.
3.                  Half-fill each mini-muffin cup, and gently press a Malteser into the centre of each. You want to leave a little of the mixture beneath each Malteser to cushion it from the heat. Fill each mini-muffin cup to about two-thirds full, concealing the Malteser in the centre of each cup. Transfer to the preheated oven.
4.                  Bake for 11 - 13 minutes or until well risen. To test for doneness, prod lightly with a finger. The mixture will spring back if it is cooked. If your finger sinks into the mixture, give the cakes another minute or two in the oven and test again.
5.                  Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar or compounding the sin with chocolate frosting - see note (and link) below*
Mmmmmaltesers - one is never enough!

*If there had been more chocolate in the house, I would have frosted these with this chocolate honey truffle frosting or a ganache, or dipped them in good quality melted chocolate. I dusted them with icing sugar and it was enough to elicit a satisfied “Mmmmmm... these are good” from my taste tester.
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