Gastrobabble

A quest for gastro-liberation, an excuse to buy more cookbooks…


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Cari on

I am a reformed creature of habit. Recently, I’ve been craving novelty. Seeking out the thrill of the new; the unknown; the untested. I never used to understand people who endeavoured to eat somewhere different every time they ventured out for dinner. If you find something that satiates your hunger and slake your thirst, why risk the search? However, sometimes your craving wanders back home. And this, to my tongue, tastes like home.

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Cari ga (Vietnamese chicken curry)
Bear with me here but my favourite way of serving this curry is with vermicelli noodles and a fresh herb salad. I know it seems anathema to forego the traditional sundries when you have a curry but it balances out the richness of this curry and makes it into a much lighter meal. On the other hand, if you want the sundries, steamed white rice or a crispy baguette are still authentic.

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Ingredients
4 chicken thighs
1 onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 knob of ginger
1 large chilli
2 bird’s eye chillies
2 stalks of lemongrass
4 carrots
2 sweet potatoes
1 can coconut milk
Curry or madras powder
Bay leaf or kaffir lime leaf
Fish sauce
Light brown sugar

To serve
Vermicelli rice noodles
Shredded iceberg lettuce
Coriander
Cucumber slices
Lemon wedges
Sriracha chilli sauce

Start by heating up some vegetable or sunflower oil in a large saucepan or sautee pan. Once the oil is hot, place the chicken thighs skin down and fry to seal and caramelise all sides. Whilst you are doing this, finely chop the ginger, garlic, onion, chilli and one stalk of lemongrass. Once the chicken is nicely browned, remove the pieces from the pan and add in the onion, garlic, ginger, chilli and lemongrass to fry and soften gently.

In the meantime, peel and chop the carrots and sweet potato into large chunks (as though for a roast). Once the contents of the pan are cooked and fragrant, add in a tablespoon of curry powder, bay leaf and the chicken. Mix to distribute the spices and add in the coconut milk. Bring to the boil and add in the remaining vegetables, lemongrass stalk and whole bird’s eye chillies. Add fish sauce and sugar to taste and simmer until the carrots and sweet potatoes are tender. Serve with noodles and salad and a simple dipping sauce of salt, pepper, lemon juice and sriracha sauce.

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I used to be a Christmas cake hater. All that boozy fruit and tooth-achingly sweet fondant icing. But I’d never had homemade Christmas cake until last year.

My then-flatmate brought some of her mum’s homemade cake home and instructed me to eat it with a crisp tart green apple and the mild, salty rubble of some Wensleydale. It turned me around gentle readers, it really did. The fruity richness of the cake was perfectly offset by it’s equally rambunctious playmates of cheese and apple. So, I’ll never eat Christmas cake in any other way now.

And when I decided to make my own this year, I thought that Dan Lepard’s recipe for a caramel Christmas cake would sidestep the throat-sticking booziness of a traditional Christmas cake but replace it with the smokiness of caramel. It turned out to be a very prudent choice indeed. So, now I’ll never eat Christmas cake any other way and I’ll never make any other Christmas cake.

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It isn’t hyperbole when I profess my love for peanut butter. Were gluttony and decorum no consideration, I would probably work peanut butter into every meal humanely possible. I’ve been known to put it into stir fries; dip chocolate or celery sticks into it; or just idly eat it from the jar whilst I’m waiting for the kettle to boil.

I adore the salty/sweet play of flavours with English peanut butter (let’s not talk about the American oversweetened stuff). It’s the combination which I love in other things: salted caramel; chocolate covered pretzels; compost cookies. And now that I’ve made my own peanut butter, I love how cheap and easy it is to make.

All you need is a food processor. Seriously. And not even a worktop food processor. (I am not fortunate enough to own one nor have the space for one.) I used the mini food processor attachment on my hand blender which handily makes just enough for one jar. Oh and on a jar note: I’m a crazy jar hoarder. I collect, clean, sterilise and scrape labels off year round. It’s worth it once you get to Christmas. If you’re not as nuts as me, TK Maxx and DotComGiftShop sell cheap jars of all sizes.

It’s an ideal thing to make for Christmas gifts because it’s stupidly simple to make; incredibly cheap; and unlike chutney or jam, it is something that on the whole, most people love (though perhaps, not as obsessively as me…)

Homemade peanut butter
The recipe given is the basic template for peanut butter. Well I say “recipe”. That’s too fancy a word for what it really is. Anyway, add what you like to it! For chocolate spread, add melted chocolate. You could also make a boozy version using Frangelico, coffee liquier or Bailey’s. You could go festive with apple purée and cinnamon. Or use honey roast peanuts. Or even different nuts all together, cashew makes a particularly lovely buttery, um, nut butter.

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Ingredients
Salted peanuts
Golden syrup
Sea salt flakes

Throw all your peanuts into a food processor. I am not fortunate enough to be equipped with a food mixer stand, nor the space for one so I used the mini food processor with my hand blender (it’s the one you can use to finely chop herbs and onions. Or in my case make breadcrumbs. Lazy, I know.) Basically all you need to do is blitz until it turns into a smooth, creamy peanut butter. It will go from chopped nuts; to a doughy ball; to a grainy paste; and then miraculously, a smooth, runny peanut butter. Add in a touch of golden syrup to balance out the flavour and then a generous sprinkle of sea salt flakes to add a bit of textural crunch. Transfer to sterilised jars whilst still warm and runny.

Notes on variations
Adding in any flavourings like alcohol will cause the butter to seize up but do not fear. The runny smooth consistency is mainly due to the heat from the food processor. So add in your flavourings and then blitz for a few more minutes to warm it up and fully combine.

To make chocolate spread, simply stir in melted chocolate. I went for milk chocolate but I suspect dark would work well too. If you want to make a true Nutella substitute, then use skinless hazelnuts in place of the peanuts.

Finally, for crunchy peanut butter, stir through a handful of whole peanuts once processed.


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Crunchie nuggets

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So I know that every bloody food blog going runs a twee make you own edible Christmas gifts! style feature at this time of year. Whilst in principle I like the idea, between all the Christmas parties/quaffing of mulled things/mandatory viewing of Christmas films, who has time to churn out lovely thoughtful and artisanal looking hunks of chocolate bark for everyone? I did it last year and was up until 1am getting increasingly fretful about the way that crushed candy canes are a pisser to deal with (far too sticky).

Things like chutney and mincemeat are great because they’re easy to churn out in batches and dole out to people. But in my experience, chutney isn’t a universally loved thing and mincemeat is only a good gift for other baking nerds. Sweeties however, are pretty safe territory.

Cinder toffee. Honeycomb. Hokey pokey. Many names for what is basically sugar and golden syrup bubbled up into honeycomb with the aid of some bicarbonate of soda. Dip it in chocolate and you get what is essentially a homemade Crunchie. Apparently it is unacceptable to gift mass manufactured cheap confectionary for Christmas but make your own and most people will consider you a Wonka-like figure.

Crunchie nuggets
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I made this in one large silicone cake mould but small silicone cupcake cases or mini loaf moulds would work well too. In any case, use silicone where possible as it makes life (i.e. the washing up situation) far far easier. (Pro tip: before washing up things that have contain hot syrup, let it soak in very hot water first. This will dissolve all the sugar and prevent any tantrums.)

Ingredients
200g sugar (caster or granulated)
4 tablespoons golden syrup
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
400g dark chocolate

In a heavy bottomed pan, combine the sugar and golden syrup. Heat and stir until the mixture caramelises to a gingery colour (think Irn-Bru). Take off the heat as soon as it reaches this point and whisk in the bicarbonate of soda, at which point it should froth up like some sort of amateur Wiccan cauldron. Pour into your mould and leave to set for a few hours until firm.

Once it is set, cut up the honeycomb as best as you can (don’t try to go for uniformity, it is nigh on impossible). Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water and keep on a low heat whilst you dip and coat the nuggets in, leaving them to cool on a sheet of greaseproof paper. I used crumbs of honeycomb to decorate but sea salt flakes or gold leaf would be suitably in vogue as well.


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You know what I’m going to say and you are going to roll your eyes at it but really, making homemade marshmallows is incredibly simple. The difficult part is getting round to buying a sugar thermometer (which is easily obtainable from Amazon or any good kitchenware shop – I got mine from Divertimenti and had change from £5). Once you have a sugar thermometer, you can a) make all sorts of sweeties and b) snigger in a puerile fashion at the different temperatures marked on it (“hard ball”, “soft crack”…come now confectioners, you filthbots.)

Why bother going to the trouble of making your own marshmallows? Apart from the customisation factor (any flavour you want, any colour you want), homemade marshmallows are incredibly light, fluffy delicate things. It’s like eating a cloud, kitten and yummy fog all rolled up into one chunky square.* If you’ve made a meringue, then a marshmallow is simply the next-door neighbour. It’s whipped egg whites stabilised with a sugar syrup heated precisely to 122c (the “hard ball” stage…you have my permission to snigger at the back) and gelatine. Honestly, the most troublesome thing about making marshmallows is the washing up and that’s a small price to pay if you’re a mallow addict like me.

*N.B. No kittens were harmed in the writing of this post.


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If you’ve never been enamoured of gnocchi because you’ve always found it too doughy and stodgy, you’ve never had homemade gnocchi. I too, dear readers, was once like you: suspicious of the plump little dumplings which look suspiciously like Adipose. Make it once and you’ll be converted, it’s idiotically easy: mashed boiled potatoes made into a dough with flour and egg and then fleetingly cooked before being enveloped in whatever flavours come to hand. I used Giorgio Locatelli’s recipe (skipping out the oven-drying-out phase and using plain flour in lieu of ’00’ grade flour) and they still turned out like fluffy little spuddy pillows. If that doesn’t entice you, then you’re clearly a lost cause.


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“See Naples or die”

Well, apparently that’s what the locals say in Naples. I’m not sure if that’s a threat or a testament to the sights of Naples (actually, having been to Naples, I’d suggest that it’s most likely the former but I’ll save that for my memoirs. Out at Christmas at all reputable book retailers etc.)

ANYWAY.

What I really want to talk about is this sugary looking confection which I conjured for a recent charity bake sale at work…

Neopolitan layer cake

Never mind that I almost cried making this cake (due to extreme tiredness and lack of proper sustenance apart from two iced buns and a Heston spiced shortcrust mince pie).

Never mind that it turned out slightly lopsided because as it turns out, the oven in my flat is on a slight tilt.

Never mind that I had a batter calculation error which left me with less layers than I originally planned for.

Because as much as it looks like this cake has been manufactured by Katie Price and will probably vanquish the enamel right off you teeth within fifty paces, the nifty inclusion of a fresh strawberry puree in the strawberry layer brings a welcome tart tang which makes the cake sing. I know what you’re thinking – fresh strawberry puree sounds like an absolute sodding arse to make. If you’re a soup fanatic or hopelessly middle-class, you’ll own a hand blender and it’ll be a whizz (HAHA). If not, I imagine that a potato masher (or fist if you’re endearingly macho) will do pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, what with the craze for multicoloured layer cakes and the surprise factor once you cut it open, this is one of those perfect party cakes. It’s the kind of thing that cries out to be eaten alongside board games, skewiff party hats and with a smear of buttercream left on the tip of your nose.

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Neopolitan layer cake

Inspired by the ever-marvellous Sweetapolita and I Am Baker, I cobbled together a combination of my favourite chocolate and white cake recipes and modified it for a strawberry layer too. All with UK measurements so no messing about with US cup measures (I am always exceedingly suspicious of measuring butter by cups. Probably due in part to the mess factor.) Unlike other multicoloured layer cakes, you can’t knock up one batch of batter and tint it different colours – each layer needs to be made separately so I’d recommend making the sponges the day before they’re needed (they keep very well wrapped in clingfilm and kept in the fridge for a few days) and then all that’s needed is an assembly job.

Ingredients

For the chocolate cake (adapted from Tarek Malouf’s recipe for Brooklyn blackout cake from The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook)

100g salted butter

260g caster sugar

2 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

45g cocoa powder

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

170g plain flour

160ml milk

For the strawberry and vanilla layers (adapted from Edd Kimber’s raspberry ripple cake recipe from The Boy Who Bakes)

335g salted butter

335g plain flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

400g caster sugar

6 large eggs, separated

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

185ml milk

250g fresh strawberries, washed, topped and pureed

Pink food colouring (I tend to opt for Wilton’s rose gel icing)

For the icing

250g salted butter

150g icing sugar

2 tablespoons plain flour

100ml milk

Pink food colouring

Jam of your choice to sandwich the layers (I went for a combination of St Dalfour strawberry and Tiptree Christmas jam)

For the chocolate layer

Preheat your oven to 170c/325f/gas mark 3 and prepare a 23in springform cake tin.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully combined. Now add in the vanilla extract, cocoa powder, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Once those are fully combined, alternate between adding one-third of the flour and milk and mix until well combined. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes. Leave to cool for 15 minutes before unmoulding.

For the vanilla and strawberry layers

Preheat your oven to 180c/356f/gas mark 4 and prepare aforementioned 23in springform cake tin.

Beat together the butter and 300g of the sugar until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time until fully combined and then add in the vanilla extract. Once fully combined, alternate between adding one-third of the flour and milk.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to the soft peak stage and then gradually add in the remaining 100g caster sugar until the mixture becomes stiff and glossy.

Divide both the batter and egg white mixtures equally into two. One half will be baked as is to form the vanilla layer and the other half will be combined with the strawberry puree.

Side note: as I only own one 23in cake tin, I had to bake each layer separately. So, I didn’t fold in the egg whites until each layer was ready to bake because I didn’t want to lose the air and lightness by combining in advance. If you are more organised than me and have more than one cake tin, then a) well done, I salute you and b) carry on, you know what you’re doing.

For the vanilla layer, fold the egg whites into the rest of the cake batter until fully combined. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 50-60 minutes. Leave to cool for 15 minutes before unmoulding.

For the strawberry layer, mix the strawberry puree into the egg, butter and flour mixture and then add the food colouring in to tint to your desired shade of pink. Fold in the egg whites once you are ready to bake the layer, pour into your tin and again, bake for 50-60 minutes. The strawberry puree makes this layer quite moist so it may need slightly longer than the other layers. Check with a knife, cake tester or toothpick before removing from the oven.

For the buttercream

Start by making a milk and flour roux: whisk the milk and flour in a small saucepan on a low heat. Once it starts to thicken, take off the heat and leave to cool whilst you make the rest of the buttercream. Using a handmixer, beat the salted butter until fluffy and creamy. Gradually add in the icing sugar, tasting after each addition – you want to aim for a buttercream that is still slightly salty to provide a counterpoint to the sweet sponge. Consequently you might not use all of the icing sugar specified in the ingredients (to be honest, I never measure how much icing sugar I use, I always do it by taste). Once the butter and sugar are fully combined, mix in the roux, at which point the buttercream should take on a whipped consistency. Tint with food colouring to desired shade.

To assemble

Carefully cut your layers in half. As you can see from my picture, I only managed to successfully do this with the chocolate layer because a) I assembled it at 11:30pm at night and was deathly tired and cold, b) I cut the strawberry layer unevenly so only one half survived and c) I divided the batter unevenly so there was only enough for one vanilla layer. Learn from my mistakes gentle readers. And don’t despair if you do make mistakes because you can always tell people that you originally intended four layers. SHH. It’s our secret. Never tell.

Sandwich together your layers with a jam of your choosing. You don’t have to go for a mismatched combination like I did. That was a failure on my part for not conducting a conserve audit before proceeding to assemble this.

Start off by icing with a thin crumb coating (that chocolate layer will flake off like a bastard, just to warn you). Chill in the fridge for 20 minutes to set (or overnight). Once this has set, you should be able to frost the rest, free of the worry of errant crumbs in the final outer layer. I finished it off with a spatula (a palatte knife would be preferable but I realised that I no longer own one) for a smooth and clean finish and multicoloured sugar sprinkles.