Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini

I don’t like repeating recipes on this blog. I feel that it short-changes my readers when you visit expecting something sparkly and new and it reads with a little too much familiarity.

I make an exception here, as I can claim it is a worthy variation, rather than a direct repetition. Every recipe I post has been tested at least three times, often many times more. I post recipes that I love and I hope my readers will love too. As a result I cook the food featured on this blog often in my everyday life. This does lead to tweaks and alternations that sometimes don’t work, but sometimes lead to something wonderful. This is one of those times.

You may or may not have read my previous post about cantuccini which suggested several, rather traditional additions to the dough. After a recent trip to Italy, I was inspired to try out a chocolate variation, darkly rich with cocoa, chocolate chips and glistening green pistachios. Do not be tempted to use anything other than the best quality dark chocolate here. Even if you do not like dark chocolate, it is necessary here for the richness and depth of flavour which works so well with the pistachios. It is a fabulous combination and totally addictive. A worthwhile post, I hope you will agree.

Dark Chocolate and Pistachio Cantuccini
Makes about 30

Ingredients

250g plain flour, sifted
250g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tbs good quality cocoa powder (not drinking chocolate)
150g good quality dark chocolate-60% cocoa solids or more is good.
2 eggs

Method

Heat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4 and line two baking trays with baking parchment. Shift the cocoa powder into the flour and mix all the dry ingredients together. Chop the chocolate into rough shards and mix into the flour. Beat the eggs and pour half into the dry ingredients. Mix.

Add the eggs until you have a dough which comes together and feels slightly sticky. You may not need to use all the eggs, so go carefully or the dough will be too wet.

Dust the worktop with flour and divide the dough into six. Roll each section out into a rough sausage shape, about 3cm wide, using a bit of flour if they stick. Lay on the lined baking trays, leaving a good 3-4 cm apart as they spread when they cook.

Pop in the oven for about 25-30 minutes and cook until they are a light golden brown. Take out and leave to cool for 10 minutes.

Turn the oven down to 150°C. Slice each section on a diagonal using a serrated blade into pieces of about 2 cm and lay back on the baking trays. Bake for a further 10-15 minutes but do watch them as they catch quite easily. They make be pliable when hot, but it is imperative that they are cooked through, as this is what gives you a fantastic crunch.

Cool on wire racks and store in airtight containers.

Watermelon and Mint Martini

 

Watermelon and Mint Martini

 
It is a sad fact that us Brits cannot cope with hot weather. It’s just not in our DNA. The sun pokes it head through our normally grey sky and suddenly men and women are wearing outrageously inappropriate clothing on public transport, as their exposed shoulders gently turn the colour of cooked lobsters. People whose usual idea of cooking is to pop a pizza in the oven decide that they are expert BBQ chefs, donning aprons with smutty slogans on and giving everyone food poisoning by sloshing the marinade used for the raw meat all over the bits that are cooked. 

Our rail tracks buckle, our parks frazzle and no shop can keep up with the demand for ice. That picnic with your family in the park that sounded like such a great idea rapidly unravels into a bitch-fest as people get cramp, get stung, get bored and get drunk. It’s not pretty. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to these potential hazards of summertime. Deciding that hot pants are not a great look for the office and avoiding any picnic without waiter service are a good start. 

More positive still is to have a really cracking summer cocktail up your sleeve which is both delicious and genuinely refreshing. The ubiquitous Aperol Spritz is still alive and kicking (although when hideous chain pubs start serving it, it might be a sign to move on), but I urge you to try this absolutely delicious concoction of watermelon, mint and vodka, given to me several years ago by the Head Barman of the, now sadly defunct, Boxwood Cafe in London. It is so simple it barely warrants a recipe but this is a cooking blog so I need to give you one, just to make myself feel useful. 

Watermelon really does live up to its name as it is made up of about 92% water. This is very important for summer drinking, as it’s mainly dehydration caused by alcohol consumption that gives you that awful headache at about 4pm on a Saturday afternoon after deciding to drink rose wine from midday onwards. The water content in the watermelon in this recipe will help mitigate this. I only say help, not eliminate so please drink responsibly, keep hydrated, blah, blah, blah. 

The mint in this recipe is a brilliant compliment to the watermelon and makes the drink doubly refreshing. Temperature is key so make sure everything is as cold as possible before you partake. 

You can make this martini in a cocktail shaker if you want to look very efficient but this method means you can make a whole jug at a time, which can only be a good thing for everyone. 

Watermelon and Mint Martini

Makes 4

Ingredients

400g watermelon, roughly chopped into chunks

Handful of mint leaves

200ml good quality vodka

Watermelon slices for garnish

Method

If you have a juicer, juice the mint and watermelon together. If not, blend the watermelon and mint in a blender or with a hand held blender until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve.  Chill the juice until it is ice cold. 

Add the vodka, stir and serve in chilled martini glasses, with a slice of watermelon on the side. 

Chicken Caesar Salad

Chicken Caesar Salad

Chicken Caesar Salad

I find food phobias quite amusing. I’m talking about phobias, as opposed to allergies. Proper allergies (unlike those that people invent for themselves because they read somewhere that Beyonce is allergic to crumpets and that eliminating them from her diet has, literally, changed her life) can be awful. As someone who lives with someone with a severe fish allergy, I know from bitter experience that real food allergies are not at all funny.

Phobias are very different. People often convince themselves that they dislike a food, even if it turns out they have never tried it. Apparently it takes children up to 15 times to be offered a food before they might grow to accept it and like it. A friend of mine maintains that she absolutely cannot eat raspberries because she hates the texture of the pips, but is quite happy to slather her toast with raspberry jam and not the seedless variety.

Sometimes your tastes change, adapt and generally mature. As a child I hated olives, despite my mother’s dogged perseverance with me. When I was about sixteen, I decided to try them again and realised I loved them. In contrast, I have tried in vain to like and appreciate coffee for many years without success. I have tried it in every form; strong, weak, iced, sweet. I have tried, but it still makes me gag. I suppose the suggestion is to keep trying things, even the things you believe you do not like. You may find you like them, you may not, but an appreciation of a wide range of flavours and textures in food is a wonderful thing.

Anchovies are a frequently mentioned phobia in food. Fresh anchovies are one thing, but the type that most of us come across most are the cured or marinated sort that often come in flat tins or glass jars in oil. A lot of people are convinced they cannot stand them.  They are a highly flavoured food, deeply savoury and intensely salty and so are not to many people’s taste. I am not convinced when I see chefs proclaim that if you melt anchovies into hot oil while preparing a dish, you won’t taste them, they will just add depth to the dish. This really isn’t true. The whole point of marinated anchovies is the strength of the taste. Lamb, slow cooked with anchovies is wonderful, but it still tastes of anchovies. Personally, I love them, but I do appreciate they are just too much for some people. They are certainly one of those foods that you may learn to love as you grow older, even if you hated them when you first tried them.

Despite its Roman name, Caesar Salad was invented in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico by a restaurateur by the name of Caesar Cardini. During prohibition, he found his restaurant flooded by booze-seeking Americans. To relieve the pressure on his kitchen he decided that this popular salad would be prepared at the table by the waiters instead. It was a very theatrical show, especially as the use of a raw egg as part of the dressing was seen as exciting and controversial.

Purists might protest at the addition of items such as chicken, bacon and extra cheese, but I think a shredded, plain cooked chicken breast works very well, as it adds substance but has a soft enough flavour to still let the dressing shine. It is the dressing that makes this salad special. The thick and creamy consistency coats the leaves beautifully. This, along with the freshness of the lettuce and the crunch of croutons makes for every mouthful being exciting and always a bit different. Anchovies are a fundamental part of the dressing of any reasonably authentic version of Caesar Salad. You can try using a few dashes of Worcestershire Sauce instead (which contains anchovies anyway) or leave them out if they cause you too much trauma, but give it a go. You might just like it.

Chicken Caesar Salad

Serves 2

Ingredients

– 1 free-range egg

– 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

– 1/2 crushed garlic clove-less if it’s a large clove

– 3 tbsp grated parmesan cheese

– juice ½ lemon

– ½ tsp sea salt flakes or ¼ tsp pouring salt (use none if you add anchovies)

– 1 Romaine or Cos lettuce

– 1 cold roast chicken breast

– freshly ground pepper

For the croutons

– 200g ciabatta bread

– 2 tbs olive oil

– 1 clove of garlic, crushed

 

Method

First make the croutons. Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Tear the bread into rough, mouth size chunks. Crush the garlic into the olive oil and drizzle over the ciabatta. Mix well so all the pieces of bread are coated. Spread in a single layer on a baking tray. Bake for about 15 minutes, turning halfway, until the pieces are golden and crispy.

If you are using anchovies, put them in a bowl and mash them to a thick paste. Crack the egg into a bowl and mix with the anchovies. Add the oil slowly while whisking so the dressing emulsifies. Stir in the lemon juice and garlic and taste. Season if necessary. You will definitely need to add salt if you are not using anchovies.

Tear the lettuce into pieces. Toss in the dressing so the leaves are evenly coated. Add the parmesan and toss again. Tear the chicken into strips and add to the salad. Sprinkle over the croutons, adding a few extra shavings of parmesan if you like. Serve immediately.

Kitchen Tip #20 Easy Lining for Cake Tins

Cutting roughly round the tin

Cutting roughly round the tin

I would love to pretend that I have reusable, pre-cut liners for all my cake tins that I wash after every use and pop back in the tins, ready to use next time.  The reality is that it is quite a way down my list of priorities and I always use greaseproof paper.  Lining round cake tins is a pain; the drawing round and the cutting out, which never ends up right anyway. However, I have found a cunning way of making it very quick and it always works. You don’t even need scissors for this, as you can just tear the paper where necessary.

Folding the paper

Folding the paper

Place your tin on top of the grease proof paper so that the edge of the tin lines up roughly with the edge of the paper. Cut straight down near the other side of the tin so you have a square which is roughly the diameter of the cake tin. You really don’t need to be accurate, as long as it is bigger than the cake tin.

Take the tin off the paper. Fold the paper in half, turn 90 degrees, then half again and once more. Turn the tin upside down and put the tip of the folded paper at roughly the centre of the tin.

Measuring the cake tin with the paper

Measuring the cake tin with the paper

Make a rough mental note of where the paper comes to at the edge of the tin. Take your scissors again and cut the paper at this point.  Unfold and there you have it. A perfectly lined cake tin in about 20 seconds.

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Fig and Frangipane Tart

Fig and Almond Tart

Fig and Frangipane Tart

I am learning Italian and I love discovering new words, not surprisingly, especially ones about food. Le primizie is a new one for me this week. It means the fruit and vegetables which people can buy out of season. In the UK, we are used to being able to wander into our local supermarket and buy whatever we want, at any time of year. It often doesn’t work like that on the continent; in the local markets you find on nearly every village square, what you can buy is only what is in season. Although supermarkets are catching up in popularity, unlike the UK, it is rare to go into a supermarket in France, Spain or Italy and find strawberries in December.

I very much believe in the idea of ‘eating the seasons’. It seems the most natural and economical way to get the best out of fresh food. Out of season fruit and vegetables will often be such an expensive disappointment. I will always remember nearly fainting at the checkout at my local supermarket one Christmas when presented with a £20 bill for four boxes of fresh raspberries, having been asked to make a raspberry pavlova for a party. Unsurprisingly, they were like bullets and tasted about as appetising. It wasn’t a shock, but a valuable lesson. Just because you can buy something, doesn’t mean you should.

Often, seasonality in particular countries is the important thing. For example, those gorgeous tiny French Gariguette strawberries are perfect right now, but English varieties still have a way to go, despite being on sale already. Do not be tempted, your patience will be rewarded in a few short weeks.

As much as I want to eat fruit and vegetables that are in season, I also want to eat fruit and vegetables that taste delicious, no matter what time of year it is. I therefore advocate the ‘taste and see’ approach. If you like the look of something, it may still taste good, even if it’s not strictly the right time of year for it. If you buy any fresh produce from a market, you can ask to taste it first. Any vendor with pride in their produce will be happy to let you try it; you should be suspicious of one who won’t.

Figs are certainly not something that are in season in early May. The best figs are often the Turkish Black Bursa figs, which are deeply perfumed, jammy and sweet, but they only come to the markets at the end of the summer for a few precious weeks. However, last weekend, I was kindly given two boxes of some tiny, plump, blackish purple figs which looked remarkably like mini Black Bursas. The friend who gave them to me had no idea what they were called or where they came from. They were not bullet-hard and tasted ok, but completely lacked that beautiful honeyed softness that perfectly ripe and in season figs always have.

However, cooking figs changes them completely. Dried figs are eaten a lot in the Middle East, usually to fill in time and compensate until the new season starts. Baking acts as a sort of drying out. They shrink as the moisture evaporates and the texture becomes slightly chewy like a sweet. They taste considerably sweeter when they are baked, as the sugars concentrate during cooking. Cooking these figs was, therefore, the logical option.

Figs and almonds are a beautiful pairing. A frangipane simply acts like a cake mixture, but using ground almonds, rather than flour. It is a great friend in the kitchen as it is so delicious and works with so many flavours. It is also surprisingly easy to make. This tart needs nothing more than a good dollop of sour creme fraiche to set it off. If you haven’t got a friend with a mysterious glut of figs at the moment and don’t fancy paying extortionate amounts for supermarket ones, frozen berries such as blueberries or blackberries work equally well here. You can, of course, buy a pre-made sweet pastry case, but I have included the tart case in the recipe below, if you are so inclined. Do not be scared of pastry, you must be prepared to muck it up several times when you first try it but you will get the knack eventually. You will need a 28″ tart tin: loose bottomed or silicone are best. If you don’t have one this size, see my tip here.

Fig and Almond Tart
serves 8
Ingredients

For the pastry
225g plain flour
150g cold butter
25g icing sugar
1 large egg, beaten
2 tbsp ice-cold water

For the filling
200g unsalted butter, softened
200g caster sugar
4 eggs
200g ground almonds
50g plain flour
zest of one lemon
8-10 figs, top of the stems trimmed, cut lengthways into halves or quarters, depending on size

Method

To make the pastry, pulse together the flour, salt and butter in a food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Add the sugar, then the beaten egg  and pulse until just combined and pulling away from the edge of the bowl – add the iced water a tiny bit at a time and only if necessary. If you do not have a processor, rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar (or grate it in from frozen), the add the beaten egg. Bring together and add the water if you need it. Try not to kneed the pastry, just bring it together into a smooth ball. Wrap in clingfilm and pop in the fridge for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Roll out the pastry until about the thickness of a pound coin on a lightly floured surface. Using a loose-bottomed 28″ tart tin, gently place on top of the rolled out pastry to check that the circumference of the pastry is at least 6cm wider all around than the bottom of the tin. Lift the rolled out pastry onto your rolling pin and place it over the tin. Carefully ease the pastry into the tin so that it starts to fit into the contours of the tin. Roll a bit of extra pastry into a ball and use it to push the pastry down into the tin. If you use a finger, the pastry is more likely to split. If it does, do not worry, simply use a sliver of excess pastry to glue it back together.

Pressing the pastry into the tart tin

Pressing the pastry into the tart tin

Trim the excess pastry from the edges of the tin. the easiest way to do this is rolling your rolling pin over the top to trim. Chill again for 15 minutes. Line with greaseproof paper and baking beans or dried pulses, and blind bake for 20 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, and bake for five to 10 minutes longer, until the base is dried and slightly golden. Leave the shell to cool, and turn down the oven to 150°C.

Lined tart tin

Prepared tart base

Now make the filling. Cream the butter, sugar and almonds together. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until combined well. Add the flour and lemon zest and mix well. Spread this mixture into the cool tart case. Slice the figs and place on top, cut side up, pushing the pieces slightly into the frangipane.

Adding the figs

Adding the figs

Bake for between 1 hour and 1 hour 15 minutes until the mixture is nicely puffed up and the centre is set. The edges will catch a little due to the high sugar content, so you can cover with foil if it looks like it is getting too dark. Allow to cool before trying to remove from the tin to avoid breakage.

Fig and Almond Tart

Finished Fig and Frangipane Tart

Fatshaming Children

"Easter-Eggs-1" by Lotus Head from Johannesburg

“Easter-Eggs-1″ by Lotus Head from Johannesburg. Wiki-Commons.

I very rarely watch television in the mornings, but yesterday I happened to be at the gym while breakfast TV was on. As I was waiting for the treadmill to start up, the screen popped up with Good Morning Britain. For those readers who don’t live in Britain, this is a magazine morning show on a channel called ITV. I was about to switch to a music channel when I noticed what was on the screen in front of me. An item was discussing chocolate Easter eggs and how much exercise is needed to work off the subsequent calories. So far, so obvious. What made my jaw drop was the reporter went on to ask two little girls how many chocolate eggs they had eaten over Easter, showing the total calories and then telling them how many hours of running or Zumba they would need to do to work it off.

The girls looked to be about seven or eight. They both looked a completely normal size and weight. As they listened to the reporter, they looked shocked and shame-faced at the results. Rather than being given the chance to enjoy a time of the year when everyone indulges in a little excess chocolate, they were being made to feel guilty and that their innocent consumption of the sweet stuff over Easter had serious consequences. I really couldn’t believe what I was watching.

As I thought about it, I became more and more angry. It demonstrated how easily a few words from an adult could have the most devastating effect on children’s self esteem and body confidence. I am almost sure I did not even know what calories were at that age, but I do know that children are aware of their bodies, food and exercise at a much earlier age these days. I do not have children, but I do have many friends with young children and I see many things in the world today to do with children and food that really worry me. So-called ‘perfect’ bodies are everywhere in the media; the idea pressed upon young children is that if they do not have a six pack or can squeeze into a size eight pair of jeans they are somehow not quite good enough. Conversely, we are surrounded by junk-food advertising, much of which is targeted specifically at children. The vicious cycle of dieting and binging can be set very early on.

It is a tricky issue; most of us are aware there is a childhood obesity problem in this and many other countries. Michelle Obama has famously made childhood obesity one of her target causes with her Let’s Move! campaign. The World Health Organization (WHO) regards childhood obesity as one of the most serious global public health challenges for the 21st century. Some statistics suggest that in some year groups, a third of school children are classified as clinically obese.

Children need to adopt a healthy attitude to food from a very early age. Fruit, vegetables, lean meat and fish are great. But, chocolate and sweets are also fine, just not all the time. Having chocolate at Easter is nothing to be ashamed of. Childhood is when many of the essential foundations for healthy living are made; habits, good or bad, picked up at this time will remain with you for life. An acquaintance of mine recently told me she was worried about her twelve year old daughter, as she had discovered that was was taking food from the kitchen cupboards and eating in secret. She went on to say that she herself has had food and weight issues her whole life. It made me wonder what she had said, in total innocence, in front of her daughter over the years.

There is no doubt that many children need to eat less fat and sugar and exercise more. Trying to prevent childhood obesity and all the subsequent health problems which come with it, is incredibly important for the future health of society. It just made me very sad to see how two little girls were made to feel so ashamed for enjoying a simple childhood pleasure. Surely there has to be a better way of encouraging healthy eating and exercise than that?

 

Hollandaise Sauce

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

I really am the high priestess of procrastination. If anything really needs to be done, I am sure to find a huge list of other tasks which need addressing so urgently, they simply cannot be left. This always applies to studying. Once I am in the midst of it, I am immersed and able to be productive, but getting started is always a problem. Those windows really do need cleaning, that shirt has been missing a button for over a month and, goodness, how have I not cleared the fluff from the tumble dryer this week?! The truth is obvious-none of it needs doing, but my studying does and that is why my brain is trying to come up with tasks to avoid it. Such procrastination often leads to cooking-well, it’s essential isn’t it? It also comes with the reassurance that even if I fail my exams this summer, at least I can make a mean hollandaise sauce!

Let’s not kid ourselves; this is not a healthy recipe. During the season of Lent, which is all about abstinence and reflection, I have chosen the most calorie-laden, richly decadent sauce to share with you. Ironically, I cannot eat any of it, as I have actually given up butter, but that doesn’t mean you should suffer too.

Hollandaise sauce is a classic sauce in the French repertoire, but it’s not an easy one to master. There are many shortcuts on the internet-including an amusing one using a vacuum cleaner attachment (look it up), but I have found that it really is just a question of practise. Hollandaise is a different beast to other emulsified sauces such as mayonnaise, as it is cooked and served warm. The difference is that you can buy reasonably good jars of mayonnaise, but I have yet to find a jar of hollandaise that does not taste either completely synthetic, or acridly vinegary. Homemade really cannot be replicated in this case. If you want Eggs Benedict at the weekend, (and who doesn’t?), you must attempt this sauce from scratch. To do this, you must face reality. You will curdle your eggs, the sauce will split, you will waste kilos of butter, but have heart, because once you have mastered this sauce, you will feel so competent and smug that you may be a bit unbearable for a while.

There are a few things you can do to make life easier for yourself. If you look up ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ in any classical French cookbook, you would be told to melt the butter gently, then separate the clarified butter from the milk solids at the bottom. This all sounds very technical and difficult. It’s not; all you need to do is melt the butter, pour it into a jug and add the melted butter, as per the recipe, stopping when you get to the milky bits at the bottom of the jug. If any goes in by accident, it does not make any difference to the sauce.

However, I have discovered something that I wish I had known when I first tried to make hollandaise. It would have saved several milk jugs and a rather nice mixing bowl from being broken in an hysterical rage. Controversially,(whisper it), I have found that you do not need to melt the butter at all. You can cut the solid butter into very small cubes and add that to your beaten egg, making sure every cube melts and is mixed in throughly as you go along. Purists would say that this method results in a sauce which is slightly less smooth and glossy than when using the original method, but I challenge you to find the difference. Another bonus is that using the butter as a solid seems to make the sauce more stable and less prone to splitting, therefore saving your sanity. Once you have mastered this, you can move onto the melted butter version if you want. I very rarely do.

The other thing to do is a have a large bowl or the sink full of cold water, ready to plunge the mixing bowl into if it even hints that it is about to split. The way to tell is if you start seeing any kind of lumps, or the butter isn’t being incorporated easily. Taking the sauce straight off the heat and putting the bowl into the cold water stops the cooking process. Whisk vigorously and you should divert any problems. If this does not seem to be working, you can add another egg yolk, but to be honest, if your sauce has split, the best thing to do is to start again. I said you would waste lots of butter.

Hollandaise Sauce
Makes about 300ml-enough for 4 portions

Ingredients
250g butter-I prefer salted
4 eggs yolks
Juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

Method

Fill your sink with cold water, ready to plunge the bowl into if it looks as though it is about the split. Bring a pan of water to simmering, place a heat-proof bowl over the pan, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Cut your butter into small cubes. Separate the eggs and place the yolks into a bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a grinding of pepper-you can use white pepper if you do not want the black speckles in your sauce.

Egg yolk in bowl

Egg yolk in bowl

Using a small whisk or fork, mix the eggs, making sure you are moving the mixture constantly.

Mixing the egg yolks

Mixing the egg yolks

Keep mixing the egg yolks until they become frothy, lighter in colour and more voluminous. Keep checking that the water is just simmering.

Cooking out the egg yolks

Cooking out the egg yolks

Once the eggs are at the frothy stage, you can start to add the butter. Add one small cube at a time, mixing constantly. Allow each cube to melt and be incorporated before you add the next one.

Adding the butter

Adding the butter

After you have added about half the butter, the sauce should be stable enough for you to add more cubes of butter at a time. Make sure you keep whisking. Keep adding the butter until it has all been incorporated into the sauce.

Hollandaise Sauce

Hollandaise Sauce

You should now have a rich, luscious sauce. Taste and add lemon, salt and pepper as you wish.

You can leave this sauce in the bowl or in a jug somewhere warm, but do not leave it over the heat and do not try to reheat it-that way curdled sauce always lies.

I love it with Eggs Benedict or Florentine, but it works with asparagus, smoked fish and mushrooms amazingly well too.

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce

Kitchen Tip #19 Grating Butter into Pastry

Pastry

Pastry

This year I am determined to crack pastry. It has always been a bit of a nemesis of mine. Rubbing the fat into the four is an essential part of the process, but often the mixture remains lumpy or the butter starts to melt.

Through experimenting, I have come across a great way to get the butter rubbed into the flour in a matter seconds, rather than going through the rather tedious process of ‘rubbing in’.

When asked to rub the butter into the flour, simply put your butter in the freezer an hour or so before you want to start. Then, when hard, grate the butter on a fairly fine side of a box grater and sprinkle into the flour. You will then be able to ‘rub’ the butter into the flour with a few stirs of a spoon, or using the tips of your fingers. It saves so much time, effort and stops the butter from melting if you have warm hands.

Tortellini con Pancetta, Mortadella e Pollo (Tortellini with pancetta, mortadella and chicken)

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Finished tortellini

I eat a lot at this time of year. I actually eat a lot at every time of year, but I reassure myself that at the moment it’s about hibernation and surviving the cold, so therefore very necessary for survival.

Pasta and soup are default choices for colder weather. Pasta with soup is even better. Northern Italy is littered with variations of this recipe. This one showcases tiny stuffed parcels, packed with chicken, mortadella and pancetta. These little tortellini, which look a bit like belly buttons, are stuffed with deliciousness, intensely savoury and highly addictive. The use of chicken and pork together might be unexpected, but is a brilliant combination as the chicken gives the filling lightness and the pork a rich, salty, porcine flavour. Try and get mortadella with flecks of jewel-green pistachios if you can, as this adds a lovely nutty backnote to the taste.

Traditionally tortellini this small are served in a broth (or brodo) as a starter at Christmas, but can just be piled on a plate with parmesan and a healthy trickle of extra virgin olive oil. They freeze incredibly well and can be cooked straight from frozen. Just add an extra two minutes to the cooking time.

This is not a quick recipe. It takes time, practise and concentration, but it is very much worth it. If you have ever bought ‘fresh’ tortellini in packets from the supermarkets, you will be blown away by the flavour and delicate texture of these. I cannot pretend that they aren’t a little fiddly to make, but persevere and you will get your own production line rhythm going before you know it.

Tortellini con Pancetta, Mortadella e Pollo
Ingredients
Serves four.

For the pasta:
400g good quality flour-00 Italian flour is best
4 medium organic eggs
pinch of salt
semolina flour to dust

For the filling:
1 small chicken breast (about 200g)
40ml double cream
200g pancetta
200g mortadella
Freshly ground black pepper
1 egg yolk

1 litre of good chicken stock-if making soup

To serve:
Grated Parmesan (optional but necessary)

Method

First, make your filling. Put the chicken breast in a food processor or small blender, with a little cream to loosen if necessary, and blitz until smooth. Add the pancetta, mortadella and the rest of the cream, along with some pepper, and process again until smooth. Add the egg yolk and blitz to mix. Put in the fridge until needed.

Now make your pasta. Roll it out into sheets on the thinnest setting of your machine.

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Pasta rolled out

Cut the sheets into squares of about 7cm on each side.

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Pasta cut into squares

Place a small teaspoon of the filling mix into the middle of each square.

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Filling in place

Dip your forefinger into the water and run it over two edges of the pasta square-the top and one side. Fold the pasta over so that the filling is enclosed in a triangle of pasta. Press the edges down gently enough to not rupture the filling, but firmly enough to ensure the filling is secure with no air bubbles around the sides (these will make your tortellini break apart when boiling).

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Folding up the pasta

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Folded and sealed parcel

Rest the triangle on the underside tips of your left hand, if you are right-handed, with the top of the triangle pointing up your middle finger. Dampen the end tips of the other two ends, curl your thumb so it sits on top of the middle of the triangle over the area of filling. Bring the side ends over the top of your thumb and press gently together so they stick.

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Bringing the edges round

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Bringing the edges together

Gently slide your thumb out from the centre of the pasta and sit on a surface lightly dusted with semolina flour.

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Tortellini con pancetta, mortadella e pollo

If you are having the pasta in broth, bring the chicken stock to the boil and cook the pasta for about five minutes. If having without the broth, simply boil a pan of water as usual and cook for the same time. Either way, when the pasta is added, bring the temperature down to a simmer for the cooking, so the delicate parcels aren’t damaged.

Serve with grated parmesan and plenty of black pepper.

Homemade Custard Creams

Homemade Custard Creams

Firstly, an apology. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but to be honest, you have probably forgotten all about this blog as I haven’t posted for so long. Lots of reasons, many excuses, but everyone is busy, so let me hang my head in momentary contrition and we’ll move on. OK?

In these cold and dark days, it always seems perverse that we are all expected to deprive ourselves on every level with punishing diets and life changes. In rebellion, my thoughts turn to the comfort of obscene amounts of butter and sugar. There’s something reassuring about a full biscuit tin. I am too much of a control freak to keep mine stocked in the hope that lots of people will ‘pop round’ unexpectedly, as it will always be the day I am drying underwear on the radiators or the bathroom needs cleaning. I do it because I like that homely feeling or something made with care and love, which will also give a big sugar hit. I also like the idea of turning my back on things I am supposed to do in January and, let’s face it, there’s nothing quite like a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Retro biscuits are something everyone loves, even if they don’t admit to it. I always loved Custard Creams as a child but haven’t bought them for years as ingredients such as calcium carbonate and soya lecithins don’t really appeal to my grown-up self. These custard creams are based on a simple biscuit recipe, enhanced with Bird’s Custard Powder. When I first started playing about with this recipe, I was determined to create something similar without resorting to it. This is because, upon inspection, I was amazed to see that this magic powder is basically cornflour with flavouring and colouring. I was sure I could do better than that.

I couldn’t.

As frustrating as it is to admit, whatever the combination in that tin, it works better than anything else here, so that is what I am using. The cornflour gives the biscuit a more silky texture, just as you would have in shortbread, and the colour is warm and cheerful-although not artificial, I am assured.

When trying these out on friends, one reaction was that they are the wrong shape for custard creams. I know, but I don’t have a small rectangular cutter, so tough! Feel free to use any cutter you like, they taste great any way you want to make them.

Homemade Custard Creams

Makes 14 biscuits

Ingredients

Biscuits:
175g plain flour
3 tbsp Birds Custard Powder
1tsp baking powder
100g unsalted butter (softened)
50g caster sugar
1 medium egg
1tbsp milk

Custard filling:
1tbsp Birds Custard Powder
100g icing sugar
50g unsalted butter (softened)
1tsp hot water

Method

Preheat oven to 180°C.

For the biscuits, rub the butter into the flour, custard powder and baking powder to create a crumbly, breadcrumb-like mixture.

Tip in the sugar and mix. Beat the egg and milk together and add to the mixture. Mix well. You can do this in a stand mixer, but it is just as easy to do by hand. The mixture will come together into a dough.

Wrap the dough in cling film and rest in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. This will make it easier to shape.

Roll out dough onto a lightly floured surface to a thickness of a pound coin. Cut out as many biscuits as you can with your cutter. Any offcuts can be squeezed back together, re-rolled and cut out. You can prick them with a fork or cocktail stick to make pretty patterns if you have the time or inclination.

Place the biscuits on a lined baking sheet and bake for about 15 minutes-this timing is based on average sized biscuits. If you chose a bigger or smaller cutter, keep an eye on them and adjust the time accordingly.

Leave to cool. Now make the filling.

Simply put the custard powder, butter and icing sugar into a mixer or bowl and combine until smooth. If it feels a little stiff, add the tsp of boiling water and mix again.

Spread every other biscuit with about 1tsp of filling and squidge together with another biscuit on top.

Dust with icing sugar if you wish, but they never came out of the packet like that.

These biscuits will not keep as long as the packet ones-about a week at a push.