Saturday, August 18, 2007

Nectarine and Blueberry Kuchen

...aka the upper body workout, as indeed any yeast cookery is if you don't have a food mixer with a dough hook (I don't). Nevertheless, I love baking yeasted things. I like the slow speed with which one must approach them (it's psychological: if I am attempting this, I must be having a relaxed, slow few hours pottering around the house); I like the smell as they rise and then bake; and I love putting a small dense ball of dough in a bowl, leaving the room, and then returning to find it risen and plump and airy, twice its original size. And then punching it down is fun too...I could go on. It's a fantastic combination of science and art.

This morning, Matthew arrived on the red-eye from New York. I have worked too many hours this week, so we have plans to do nothing except sleep and possibly, if we are feeling particularly energetic, going to see The Bourne Ultimatum. My flatmate was at the premiere, and I've heard good things also from friends in the US who have already seen it. But for now, he is sleeping and I am waiting for the sweet kuchen dough to rise. I think one of the reasons Matthew likes these for breakfast so much is the fact that they take over an hour to make from start to finish, which gives him all that extra time for sleeping after I have got up. (He likes his sleep, and is quite incredibly good at it.)

When the dough is magnificently swollen, I shall punch it down, knead briefly then stretch and pull and push it into a big flat oblong, against its springy desires, and then top it with sliced nectarines and fat blueberries and bake. After about 35-40 minutes, I shall wake the boy up to a wonderfully scented breakfast - or more accurately, brunch - of delicately sweet, golden dough weighed down with warm juice-oozing fruit. Who could resist?

For the dough:
  • 500g strong bread flour
  • 2 sachets (14g) dried yeast
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • approx. 200ml milk
  • 75g butter, melted

  • For the topping:
  • 3 - 4 ripe nectarines
  • 150g blueberries
  • 2 tablespoons flaked almonds (non-essential)
  • a couple of tablespoons of milk or beaten egg to glaze the edges of the dough

  • First make the dough. Combine the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and spice in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Beat the eggs in a measuring jug, then add enough milk to reach the 250ml mark. Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the melted butter and egg mix. Using your hands or a round-bladed knife or metal spoon start to pull the flour into the well of liquid. It will start to turn in to a straggly mess, at which point you have to use your hands. Yeast dough is the opposite of pastry - you want it nice and warm so the yeast will do its job - and you have to handle it a lot and quite roughly. Turn the mix over and over with your fingers, putting wet bits into the dry areas of the bowl. It should gradually start to cohere, at which point start squeezing lumps together. If it is way too dry and never going to come together add a splash more milk and mix again. Conversely, if you have a sticky clump gluing itself to your hands, add another tablespoon of flour. (Pour it onto your dough-covered hand and then rub them together to remove the dough and add the flour to the bowl in one easy step.) The amount of liquid flour absorbs depends on its type, milling, the weather and what you wore last night, making precise directions for the quantities you will need impossible. What you are aiming for though is a dough which is soft and holds its shape without being sticky.

    Once you have a ball of non-sticky dough, you have to knead it. This is where the upper body workout begins. Lightly flour your work surface, then place your dough on it. Put the heel of your right hand against the centre and push down and away from you. Put your fingers under the far edge you've just pushed away and fold it back onto the top of the ball. Turn the dough round about a quarter turn. Place your hand on top again, push down and away, fold, and turn and repeat and repeat and repeat... With practice you will get into a rhythm and the fold and turn will become one motion, and then you will find that the whole process merges to a fluid, rolling repetition. You must keep kneading until the dough becomes smooth and springy, which will take about 10 minutes. Even if you've never done it before, you will notice the dough changing consistency as you knead - the change is really very marked, so don't worry if you don't know quite what you're looking for. Trust yourself!

    Once you've got yourself well warmed-up from the exertion and think you've done enough, put the ball of dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover with clingfilm to stop the top drying out. Put it somewhere fairly warm but not hot (yeast is a living organism and needs warmth to work, but slows down if it's too hot - just like me) and leave for about 50 minutes, until it has doubled in size. Meanwhile, switch the oven on to preheat to 200°C.

    When the rising time has been sufficient, punch down the dough. This is exactly what it sounds like: make a fist and punch down, listening as the air, or rather carbon dioxide, whooshes out of the dough. Knead again very briefly then shape into a neat ball. Place this on a lightly oiled baking sheet and press down. It will spring up again. Keep pressing and gently stretching and pushing the dough to ease it in to a large flat oblong, being careful not to tear it. You could use a rolling pin, but I find it unnecessary and cumbersome. Brush around the edges with the milk or beaten egg. On to your base, slice the nectarines into crescents about 3mm thick. I do the cutting in mid-air above it, so none of the juices are lost. Bake at 200°C for 10 minutes (this kills the yeast and stops the dough rising too much more) then turn down to 180°C. Bake for another 15 minutes then sprinkle over the blueberries and scatter a few flaked almonds. Return to the oven for a final 10 - 15 minutes, until the edges of the base are a dark gold-brown and the blueberries are oozing pinkly.

    Remove for the oven and leave to cool for at least 10 minutes before sliding onto a serving board to eat or a wire rack to cool.

    Sunday, August 12, 2007

    Salmon, Spinach and Ricotta Tart

    When we were students, my good friend Laura used to come round for dinner quite frequently, ostensibly to eat and then do homework, though the latter rarely transpired once there was a bottle of wine open. One of the things we ate most regularly was salmon, which Laura insisted could be successfully cooked in the microwave. Dubious as I was, I had to admit that the result was not bad: soft and moist, and even faster than steaming in the regular way. Now, generally I cook my fish on a skillet these days, as I like the contrast of the crisped exterior against the juicy interior, and the stripes of the pan make it look quite beautiful, but I haven't forgotten everything I learned during university days.

    One of the other Durham student standards was lunch at Hollathan's: any pizza or pasta for about £4 on weekday lunchtimes. This is where I learnt of Laura's penchant for spinach and ricotta, as that was the pizza she invariably chose.

    So, skip forward a few years, and Laura is celebrating her birthday with a picnic and Pimm's in Regent's Park. What should I take? Obviously, it has to be something that the birthday girl will like, and that will travel well. Tarts and flans and quiches are perfect for sharing on a rug, and if left in their tin can survive a fair amount of shaking and jiggling around during the journey. The answer is plain: all Laura's favourites, in a tart. Here then, is what I did, and I have to say, I think it worked out really rather well...

    For a 23cm tart:
  • One shortcrust pastry case
  • 250g skinless, boneless salmon
  • 225g (i.e. one supermarket bag) spinach
  • 3 large or 5 skinny spring onions
  • 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 250g ricotta
  • 100ml milk
  • fresh nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • 25g pinenuts

  • Make the pastry case. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

    Cook the salmon: place on a microwaveable plate or dish and cover with clingfilm. Microwave on high for 2 and a half minutes (this was enough in our 800W model). Leave for two minutes as it will continue to cook. Cut into the middle of the thickest piece to see if it is cooked through (it really doesn't matter in this case if you make it look a bit of a mess as you're going to flake it into a tart anyway). If the centre still looks rather translucent, zap for another minute. Leave whilst you get on with the rest of the filling.

    Finely chop the spring onions. Melt the butter then add the onions. Sweat over a low heat, stirring occasionally until they are softening but not colouring. Meanwhile, rinse your spinach if you think it necessary and shake off any excess water. If you have full sized leaves, chop them very roughly (for baby spinach this isn't necessary). Add to the pan with the onions, cover and turn up the heat. Steam for about 4 or 5 minutes, until the leaves have wilted and are gorgeously deep green. Remove from the heat, empty into a sieve and press to remove as much liquid as possible.

    Beat the egg and egg yolk with a fork. Add the milk, ricotta, a light grating of nutmeg and a pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper and beat again to combine.

    Spread the drained spinach over the base of the pastry case. Break up the fish into chunky flakes and distribute evenly. Gently mix around a bit, being careful not to damage the pastry. Pour over the ricotta mixture. Using a fork, rough the filling up a bit to encourage the cheese mixture to seep down through the solid ingredients and the whole lot to meld together.

    Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes. When the top is starting to look set, sprinkle the pinenuts over the top, then continue baking until it is golden, about another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack. You could eat this still warm, but it was excellent cold, alongside a bit of salad and a glass of champagne.

    Happy Birthday, Laura!

    Shortcrust Pastry

    The Salmon, Spinach and Ricotta Tart requires a pastry case. Originally, this post was included in that one, but that made for a very long post (making the recipe look daunting, which it really isn't) and besides which, the directions on making, rolling out and baking a pastry case may prove useful independently of any particular recipe. In writing this, I intended to describe and explain every step plainly, so that even someone new to reading recipes knew exactly what they are supposed to do. If any step contains unexplained jargon, please do point it out to me in comments and I will amend as necessary.

    This is pastry as made by my mother and grandmother (and almost certainly great-grandma Collins too), hence the imperial measurements. These are what I grew up using, and the numbers just seem sort of easier. All you actually need to remember is half fat to flour, and keep everything cold. The fat should be a combination of butter, to give a good flavour, and lard or vegetable shortening [e.g. Trex or white Flora] to give a delicately short, crumbly texture.

    For enough pastry to line a 23cm flan tin:
  • 8oz plain flour
  • 2oz cold butter, diced
  • 2oz cold lard or vegetable shortening, diced
  • pinch of salt
  • Cold, cold water

  • Sift the flour and salt in to a large bowl, add the cold, cubed butter and shortening and stir aroubd very briefly. Plunge your fingertips into the flour, pinch and lift. Rub your fingertips over the pads of your thumbs, with light, quick strokes, letting the flour and beads of fat fall through them back into the bowl as you do so. This is rubbing the fat into the flour.

    Continue until there are no lumps of fat left, and you have a bowl of pale sand, with maybe the odd little flattened beady bit. If at any point your hands start to get very warm, pause and rinse them well under a cold tap to cool them again; similarly, if it feels like the fat may be getting warm and oily, put the bowl in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes to chill out. These precautions should prevent your pastry coming out greasy or heavy. Once the fat and flour are combined, add three tablespoons of cold, even iced, water and mix with a round-bladed knife. Using your hands, test to see if the pastry will clump together to form a delicately cohesive ball. If not, add another tablespoon and mix again with the knife. Keep on in this fashion until you have a dough which is firm, and will just about hold together without feeling damp or sticky. Too much water will make the pastry more likely to shrink, and the texture will be harder once cooked.

    Either wrap the pastry in clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes* or roll out immediately. If the latter, you will have to let the pastry rest once it is in its tin and before cooking. (Resting is another anti-shrinkage ploy.) Preheat the oven to 200°C.

    Starting with a round but flattened ball, roll the pastry out on a flat suface, lightly dusted with plain flour. Use only the gentlest pressure and keep turning the pastry through 90 degrees to keep the shape approximately round. You want a disc which is of the same thickness throughout, without any cracks or holes. You may have to do a bit of patting back into shape if it starts to deviate too far from circular (square-ish is fine, a long rectangle is not). Stop once you have a sheet just large enough to line your flan tin (check by sitting the tin on top of it). Place the rolling pin across the centre of the pastry disc, and gently lift one edge and drape over it. Carefully lift the rolling pin, using this as a support to transfer the pastry sheet to the tin. Ease into place, gently pressing into the crenellations if you have a fluted tin (as I do, though don't tell the WI, as savoury tarts and quiches are supposed to made in a plain mold according to their guidelienes I believe, and I don't want to be run out of town by an angry mob of jam-ladle brandishing grandma's dressed in tweed). Fold the excess over the edge of the tin and either roll the rolling pin over the top or press down with your hands to cut it off. If any cracks or holes have appeared, or the pastry doesn't quite reach the top of the tin in any places, patch up with the left-over bits that you have cut off.

    If you didn't allow the dough to rest before rolling it out, place the tin in the fridge for half an hour now, otherwise proceed immediately. What follows is known as baking blind - i.e. empty. Line the pastry case with a piece of kitchen foil, then weigh down with baking beans. These can take the form of dried pulses, rice or even coins, or you could buy specially made ceramic ones in a kitchen shop - the point is having some small dry things spread over the foil-lined pastry so that it can't bubble up as it cooks. The same pulses or whatever can be used indefinitely, but be sure never to confuse them with fresh ones and cook them to eat.

    Bake your lined pastry case in the oven for 10 minutes, until the sides are beginning to dry out, but not colouring at all. Take it out of the oven and remove the foil together with the blind beans. If the sides have started to colour, turn the oven down to 180°C, and fold little strips of foil over the edges of the tin. Bake for another 10-15 minutes, by which point the base should be dried out and turning a pale yellow. Remove from the oven and voila! A pastry case, which you can use immediately, or leave to cool before storing in an air-tight box for a couple days.

    *or even for a couple of days, if it's easier to make it one day and use it another. It depends on how efficient and organised you're feeling. If the dough has been in the fridge for any length of time above an hour you will have to let it sit for a few minutes to soften a little before you can roll it out.

    Saturday, August 4, 2007

    Chorizo with Sherry and Tomatoes

    When you routinely leave work at gone 8pm and you have almost an hour's journey home, having a decent repertoire of quick to shop for and cook meals is essential, unless you want to end up eating pasta and pesto or bad pizza every night. This is just such a recipe, and is equally good in the winter or the summer. It is essentially a stew, but far brighter and lighter than anything else I know going under that name (hence it's absence in my title). Chorizo, onion and cherry tomatoes are sauted in oil spiked with paprika, and then soused in sherry. The result is both sweet and deep, each ingredient still tasting of itself whilst the sherry broth caresses them into melding with the others.

    Last night I ate this atop a mound of bulgar wheat with a layer of steamed greens in between. In an ideal world the starch would have been provided by couscous, but my search of the cupboards yielded none, and I realised that the last bag I bought was, in fact, hanging out with the spaghetti and rice at my boyfriend's flat. Such are the perils of having more than one kitchen... When the days and skies are darker, this golden-red concoction happily marries with a mound of mashed potato and a healthy helping of curly kale. Whatever the season, the idea is the same: some relatively bland cushion of carbohydrate piled with some leafy, ferrous greenery (kale, spinach, cabbage...) through which the juices can filter.

    Two points I learnt last night: firstly, don't be tempted to thicken the sauce - the result will look disturbingly like the vile bright orange stuff tinned spaghetti hoops float in, and it soaks into the rest of the dish more satisfyingly when it is thin anyway - and secondly, Barossa Shiraz which tastes strongly of peaches after it has been out of the bottle a while is a terrible partner to this. (Frankly, I can't think of anything it would partner well. Not even peaches.)

    For one, you will need:
  • 100g chorizo
  • 1 small or half a medium onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 100g cherry tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 150ml cream sherry (by which I mean somewhere between a small and a large glass - I don't actually measure it out
  • 1 bay leaf (not essential)
  • salt and pepper
  • parsley to serve, if wished

  • Heat the oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Finely chop the onion and add to the pan, frying it very gently so it softens but doesn't burn or caramelise - this dish is sweet enough already. Chop or crush the garlic and stir into the onions. If you have skinny chorizo chop into coins about 5mm thick, if a chunk of the larger diameter variety, cut into cubes of about 1.5cm. Add to the pan with the paprika and stir to thoroughly coat everything. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the chorizo is oozing its red oil and getting a tiny bit crisp on the edges of some pieces. Meanwhile, cut each tomato in half and throw in to the mix. Once the tomatoes are heated through (a couple of minutes), add the sherry and bay leaf and simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning (you may find no salt is necessary, depending on your sausage and sherry) and dilute with a little water if the broth is a bit on the heavy side for your taste. Serve, sprinkled with chopped fresh parsley if you happen to have any.