"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Friday, December 30, 2011

Self-raising flour: what it is, how to make it, and other questions on which the world hangs. Or not.

A bag of self-raising flour is a common sight in pantries across the UK and Australia, but the mention of it tends to send cooks elsewhere into a bit of tizz.  What is this strange and mysterious substance?  

What it is is no mystery.  Neither is how to make it.

SR flour is flour with a leavening agent added, so that whatever baked goodie you’re making won’t require baking powder or baking soda/bicarb-plus-an-acid-component to make it rise.  It’s very handy to have lying around, but if you can’t buy it, or if you run out, you can make yours in a trice.

The proportions are:

2 tsp. baking powder for every cup of flour

Sift together a few times, or if you’re a hard case like I am, just whisk it all vigorously for a minute or so.

Make it in bulk to have it ready to go when needed, or make as much as you need for what you’re making at the time.

OK, so I realise this is a piker’s post.  After all, it’s the last day of the year and I am in proper vacation mode right now.  More or less, I am:

a) not cooking, just subsisting on AWESOME leftovers
b) sitting in front of the telly watching all the DVDs I got for Christmas
c) crocheting
d) reading thick summery novels, and/or
e) any combination of the above.

So it’s like… yawn... Yumbo McGillicutty?  Whassat?

In my defense, however, this is a well handy hint, and I’ll be posting some recipes requiring SR flour soon.  So there.

Happy New Year everyone!  May 2012 be full of all good things for you and yours.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The things we do for love

My wacky mother and her wacky family and, in fact, a huge percentage of her wacky generation and culture have a belief that ice cream is digestive.  It was common that after a meal she would ask, “A little digestive ice cream?”  If the meal was huge, as it invariably was, the conversation would go like this:

“Would you like some ice cream?”
“No, I can’t, thank you.  I’m too full.”
“But it’s a digestive!”

It probably helped that she loved ice cream so much.  She may have loved other sweets, but she was fine without the them; on the other hand, the house was never without ice cream.  So one Christmas, when ma’s friend Lily came to stay with us and brought the dessert, a “frozen Christmas pudding” composed of chocolate ice cream, dried fruit and spices, she was in hog heaven.  As she was the following year, when she decided that for dessert she would make a frozen sweet called Parfait Fantastique, from the redoubtable "La Petrona".

It was round about that time that two important things happened:  I stopped merely being my mother’s kitchen hand and actually started cooking stuff, and my best friend, Brian, started celebrating Christmas with us.

Why are these two things important, and how are they related?  Because thanks to Brian, that very first dessert I made has been THE SAME DESSERT I’VE MADE EVERY YEAR SINCE.  This has been going on SINCE 1984.  Even though I HATE THE BLOODY THING.  Even though I TRIED MAKING SOMETHING ELSE ONE YEAR (“Yes, that was very nice,” Brian said, patting my shoulder, “now can we go back to parfait next Christmas?”).  Even though I am allowed to make as many other desserts as I like, but I CANNOT LEAVE OUT THE PARFAIT.  Even though my sister hosts Christmas every other year I still get to bring dessert, AND IT IS PARFAIT.

Why the fuss?  All the recipe is, as you can see, is something that crossed ma’s parfait and Lily’s frozen pudding, and I can’t stand the sight of it.  Make no mistake, though:  it is actually quite good.  Brian, pretending to be Donkey in Shrek has, since Shrek came out, greeted the appearance of the Christmas dessert with, “Parfait’s gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole damned planet!” and I have to admit:  it is delicious, festive, and light enough to follow the heaviest Christmas meal (and help digest it, thank you ma).

So last week, I made the yearly parfait.  Grudgingly, as is the yearly custom.  But my grumbling and whingeing and whining fell flat.  See – Brian is not here.  Brian moved to England last year, and where he is people love him and wine-and-dine him as is right and good because it is nothing less than he deserves, but I’m over here having a freakin’ existential crisis because of this stupid parfait.  Because my grumbling is nothing without his badgering me and cajoling me.  Because he won’t be here to look at me after having a mouthful, hunch his shoulders and mouth out, “YUM!”  Because he’s not here to have a third helping and the rest of my own helping after I’ve had the obligatory, grudging spoonful.  Because he may conceivably hate the dessert as much as I do but may have been wise and clever enough to realise long ago that this is one of our games.  Because he bugs me into submission and there’s no one in this world that I enjoy giving in to quite as much.  Because he’s not here to remind us that parfait is the most delicious thing on the whole damned planet.  Because the tradition of the parfait is precisely the same age as the tradition of Brian-for-Christmas, and having one without the other is just not the same.  Because truth be told, come Christmas, I don’t want to do without either.

You can make the parfait up to a month before serving.  Keep well wrapped, however, in layers of both plastic wrap and foil.  And don’t be tempted to halve the recipe:  despite my personal misgivings, I can assure you that it will get eaten!

(16-24 servings)

1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/3 cup red and green glacé cherries
1/3 cup chopped (candied) peel
2/3 cup raisins (or raisins and sultanas, half and half)
1/3 cup currants
1 tsp. mixed spice
1/4 cup rum, or apple or orange juice (if using fruit juice, you can also add 2 tsp. rum essence if you like)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
3 tbsp. cocoa
8 eggs
350g. sugar
4 cups cream
1 tbsp. gelatine
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla essence
Red and green glacé cherries, extra

What you do:
1.  Combine almonds, cherries, peel, raisins, currants, mixed spice, and rum or juice in a medium bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap, and allow to macerate and swell overnight.  (If you're pressed for time, you can place these in a microwave container, cover, and cook on HIGH for 5 min.).  The next day, mix in cinnamon, nutmeg, and cocoa.  Set aside.
2.  With an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until very thick and pale.  Add vanilla.  In a separate bowl, beat cream until soft peaks form. 
3.  Scald milk, and sprinkle over the gelatine.  Whisk with a fork to dissolve.  Add gelatine mixture to eggs and beat well.  Fold in cream.  Divide mixture in two, one rather bigger than the other.  Fold fruit mixture into the smaller quantity.
4.  Place extra cherries in a decorative pattern in the bottom of a two large loaf or bundt pans, or three medium pans.  Carefully spoon in fruit parfait mixture, and place in freezer about 15 min., until thick.  Carefully spoon in vanilla parfait mixture.  Cover with plastic wrap, place in freezer, and freeze a minimum of six hours or overnight.  Allow to soften in refrigerator one hour before serving.  Unmould and slice to serve.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mamá's Pan Dulce (Panettone)


My mother died twelve years ago.  It’s strange:  in those twelve years there have been hard times when I’ve hoped and prayed for a sense of her presence and received nothing.  And times when I’ve not consciously wanted any such thing and unexpectedly been given it.  So obviously, the subtleties of communication with passed-on loved ones are totally lost on me.  When I don’t want to leave it to chance, when I want a shortcut to connection and memory and loving vibes, I open up Ma’s cookbook and cook.

Opening up Ma’s cookbook is invariably a bittersweet experience – particularly seeing her beautiful strong script before infirmity made her elegant hand shaky – but nonetheless curiosity always gets the better of me.  It isn’t just a cookbook, but a book where she jotted down all kinds of things, including clothing designs and the measurements of the women she was making them for.  This means, alas, that I know what my measurements were back in 1985.  Dammit!  Not all tears are for you, ma!

But I digress.

It is the time of year when I open up her cookbook and make her recipe for pan dulce and give thanks.  In Spanish, pan dulce means “sweet bread”, which means that throughout the Spanish-speaking nations you will encounter all kinds of sweet breads called pan dulce.  In Argentina, however, it only means one thing:  the traditional sweet Christmas bread that the myriad Italian migrants brought with them.  Panettone.

Homemade panettone bears only a passing resemblance to the (admittedly tempting on account of the fancy packaging) bought ones.  Commercial ones are airy and dry, with the occasional raisin for interest.  Made at home, they are rich, studded with fruit and nuts – particularly pine nuts – throughout, and most of all, fragrant.  The moment I combine orange blossom water, vanilla, and brandy, the combined scent, heady and exotic, rises up to my nostrils and I whisper, “It’s Christmas”. 

Despite the yeast, pan dulce/panettone is also a boon for the harried cook.  While we all know that fruitcakes and plum puddings need to be made at least a month in advance to mature and be at their best, panettone doesn’t.  It can be made the day you intend to eat it, or the day before.  Or a week before, and kept wrapped in cellophane.  Or six months before and frozen.  Leftovers are rare.  Any that don’t get snarfed make the world’s best French toast or bread pudding.

The instructions for this pan dulce/panettone are for a mixer, but it isn’t necessary.  This isn’t a particularly difficult dough to work, it’s just that because I usually make a minimum of six loaves, I’ve streamlined the process.  And I’ve streamlined the recipe, too.   You should hear the conversations I have had with Spirit Ma over her imprecise recipe:

“How much fruit, Ma?”
“As much as you like.”
“What do you mean?”
“As much as the dough will take.”
“Sigh… OK.  How many loaves will this make?”
“One.  Maybe two.  Or three.”
“What about the brandy?  The mazahar?  The vanilla?”
“Of course.  How hot should the oven be?”
“The normal temperature.”

Death never stopped a person being frustrating.  Or providing you with the best darned Christmas treat you ever had.


The fruit doesn't have to be perfectly spread, just relatively even.
When you've finished rolling, folding, and rolling and folding again, the fruit should be evenly distributed throughout.  Remember:  each mouthful must contain tidbits!
The scaled balls of dough in their giant paper cases.  I actually imported these, which yes, makes me a little insane since carrying them as hand luggage through a 14-hour flight without them crushing is the stuff of which Hollywood blockbusters are made.
Slashed and brushed with eggwash (yes, you're right, I need a new scalpel).

Behold!  Burnished perfection.

A word on the “fragrances”.  First, the brandy:  while it gives a particular flavour, the brandy’s real role here is to react with the yeast and give it a boost.  This is much needed since this is a dough rich in butter, sugar, and eggs, which affects a dough’s ability to rise.  (No, you cannot use extra yeast:  it’ll just taste yeasty and overferment the dough, giving you a dry, and crumbly loaf.)  Next, the orange blossom water (mazahar):  I have used a lot here, but depending on the quality, you may need to use a lot less.  As a rough rule, the smaller the bottle, the stronger it is.  If you buy yours in tiny 50ml bottles that cost you a decent amount of cash, you may only need half as much, but my big 500ml bottle isn’t that concentrated.  On no account, not EVER, substitute orange extract; use the zest of an orange, instead (but make it a point to find mazahar before Christmas next year). 

Makes 3 loaves

1 kg. flour, plus a few tablespoons for the fruit
2 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
1/4 tsp. salt
150g. sugar
150g. butter, softened
3 eggs
1 cup warm milk
1 tbsp. brandy
1 tbsp. orange blossom water (mazahar)
1 tsp. vanilla essence
500g. mixed dried and candied fruit, and nuts (see below)
1/4 cup melted butter, extra

What you do:
1.  Place flour, yeast and salt in mixer bowl.  Give a few turns with the K beater.  Add sugar, and give another few turns to combine.  With motor running, add butter.  Mix until butter is mixed in.  Add eggs, milk that has been mixed with brandy, orange blossom water and vanilla, and enough water to make a soft dough.  Replace K beater with dough hook, and knead for 5 minutes.  Place dough in a greased bowl, cover, and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled.
2.  Toss mixed fruit and nuts with flour.  This will allow them to disperse evenly through the dough.  Turn the oven on so that it is just barely warm.   (If you have a gas oven, the pilot light is enough.)  Tip dough out onto floured work surface and pat out flat.  Distribute fruit over the surface and roll up.  Roll out with rolling pin; fold in three, and roll out again.  Repeat this a few times to distribute fruit through dough.  Scale dough (see below) and divide in three.  Form dough into neat mounds and place in paper panettone moulds or tall greased pans.  Place in oven and allow to rise.  When breads are 3/4 of the way to doubled, slash tops with a scalpel or samurai-sharp knife, and brush carefully with eggwash.
3.  Place breads in warm oven and crank it up to 180oC.  (This method of only partly rising and putting into gradually heating oven givens oven spring like nobody’s business – trust me.)  Bake 30 minutes, until risen and lightly golden.  Drizzle with melted butter and bake another 15-20 minutes, until tops are deeply coloured and breads sound hollow when tapped on the base.  Cool on wire racks completely before serving.

NOTE:  The fruit and nuts you use are up to you, but you should include some glacé/candied fruit, lots of pinenuts, and chopped walnuts or pecans for bite.  “Scaling” is a fancy term for weighing out individual portions of dough to get a consistent size.  To scale these loaves, I weighed the dough (it was about 2.4kg) and divided that number by three (800g).  I divided the dough in three and weighed each portion to make sure it weighed 800g.  Behold, three loaves the exact same size.

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fruit Mince Pinwheels

I was getting ready for an afternoon of making mince pies.  As I made the rich shortcrust, I imagined them topped with pastry stars and hearts.  I imagined them warm and sticky from the oven.  I also imagined rolling pastry, cutting out circles, stars, hearts, preparing pans, lining umpteen tartlet cases, filling them, topping them, baking them, and repeating the process until I either a) ran out of fruit mince, or b) started screaming uncontrollably.

I mentioned my afternoon's plans on Facebook, and my old friend Anita replied with, "Mince pies made like pinwheels, a variation I plan on trying this year…"

Zing!  Novel idea, and suddenly the afternoon looked a lot let arduous.  I'll make half as pinwheels, half as pies, I said.  Easy.  I rolled out half the pastry, spread with fruit mince, rolled it up, cut, and baked.  Then I stood in the middle of the kitchen blinking, a bit dazed, because it had all gone by so fast.  I blinked a few more times, forgot the pies, and made more pinwheels.  Total time spent:  1 hour, which includes making the pastry from scratch.  Anita rocks.

And sure:  mince pinwheels are not as pretty as mince pies topped with stars and hearts, but they're still plenty pretty, and delicious either cold with a glaze, or warm with brandy butter.  Pluds there's the added fun that Jane Grigson identified as an essential part of the enjoyment of a Chelsea bun:  uncoiling them as you eat them.

No screaming whatsoever.  I guess I rock, too.

You can use bought shortcrust pastry if you like, but go on, it's Christmas!  Blow it out a bit and make your own.  This rich shortcrust is so much better than anything you can buy.  Mince pies and pinwheels are great keepers and will reheat beautifully if you want to make them ahead.
(Makes 60 approx.)

800g. pastry flour
375g. butter
6 tbsp. sugar
2 egg yolks
Iced water, as needed
850g. best-quality fruit mince (I use a vegetarian, ie. suet-free, one from the wholefoods market)
To serve:  sugar glaze (if serving cold) or brandy butter or custard (if serving warm)

What you do:
1.  Rub butter into flour until mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  You can use a large bowl, but I do this in batches in the food processor.  Mix in sugar.  Add egg yolks and enough iced water to bring mixture together.  Gather it up into a ball, wrap in cling film, and chill for 30 minutes.
2.  Preheat oven to 180oC.  Line two large baking sheets with silicon paper.  Divide pastry in four.  Roll each one into a neat rectangle roughly 30x25cm.  (Don't worry about the size too much.  Important thing is to have neat edges and not have the pastry either too thick or too thin.)  Spread with a quarter of the fruit mince, leaving a little gap all around.  Roll up, and pinch edges to seal.  Cut into 2cm slices with a sharp serrated knife.   Repeat with remaining pastry and fruit mince.    
3.  Arrange pinwheels, cut side down, on baking sheets.  Bake 20-25 minutes, until pastry is golden and filling is sticky and bubbling.  Lift silicon paper straight onto racks to cool.  Allow to cool to warm if serving warm, or cool completely before glazing.

Yumbo McGillicutty!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Recycling Fridays: what to do about that leftover tomato paste

We all do things in the kitchen as a matter of course that we never think to share with anyone because they’re so simple, until, of course, someone asks you a simple question.  Like, “What do I do with leftover tomato paste?”

Ah.  Good question.  Tomato paste is one of those things that, unless you’re like that hard-case friend of mine who used to go at it with a teaspoon, you only use a bit at a time of.  In between those times, if the time between the times is too long, it goes mouldy.

 The classic way to store a jar of leftover tomato paste is to cover the surface with oil, but this method isn’t foolproof, because every speck and skerrick must be covered with oil.  Any exposed paste goes mouldy, which means you have to scrape all the paste off the sides of the jar with a spatula and push it down before you add the oil.  And when you spoon out tomato paste, you have to do it all over again.  And what if you don’t want oil with your tomato paste?

Tomato paste in a tube is absolutely brilliant, and possibly the best thing to happen to tomato paste, but again, this massive 500g. jar cost me the same as three of those tubes. 

What to do?

Enter the freezer, which is the friend of every cook running through the kitchen shouting, “Can’t cook now!  Cook later!” on their way somewhere else.  Times like these, with goopy, liquidy leftovers like these that you use in small amounts, people will usually tell you to press your ice cube trays into service.  If you’ve got enough of them.  And aren’t using them for ice cubes.  And can actually be bothered unmoulding the tomatoey cubes afterwards.

I don’t, and I can’t, so I use baking trays and my trusty silicon baking paper (which I buy in industrial quantities).  Dollop tablespoonfuls onto the trays, freeze…

and when frozen…

transfer them to baggies.

They are dropped, still frozen, into simmering sauces, soups and stews, and if there’s nothing simmering, they will thaw out on their own in a few minutes, or 15 seconds in the mikey.

If you’re feeling fanceh, you can press a fresh basil or oregano leaf into each dollop before freezing.  Cool.  And simple.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

These are a few of her favourite things

I have many nieces whom I love and adore, but my third niece was my first pretend child:  she was serious and a little intense and didn’t give herself easily, but she was always up for it with me, whatever it might be.  I took her everywhere – sometimes with her brother, sometimes not - and I cooked for her and with her.  We made real jelly out of orange juice and agar-agar and set it in orange cups.  She helped me make apricot jam from her grandparents’ tree.  We had barbeques where she instructed me that her sausages should not only burst, but the exposed meat where it had burst should be scorched almost to black.

She turned 30 yesterday, and I asked her what she wanted me to cook for her celebratory barbeque (at which point it should be noted that she has outgrown her penchant for burst-and-burnt snags).  Her request was something potatoey – potato salad would be good – and something custardy.  Well, d’uh.  Potatoes and custard are two out of her very favourite foods in the whole wide world right there, along with jelly (which my daughter took care of, admirably), bok choy, and Chinese dumplings. 

My daughter's Broken Glass Jelly
 For the potatoes, I decided against the potato salad and made instead a “potato feast” comprising of many steamed pink-eye baby spuds and four types of creamy sauce for spooning over the top:  bacon, tomato and chive, avocado mayonnaise, minted yoghurt, and toum (Lebanese garlic sauce).

And for the custard, I made her the precise same dessert I made her when she turned 21:  coconut flan (flan as in the original Spanish caramel custard, before the French stole it and called it crème caramel) and many, many mangoes (since they are another one of her favourite things).

An addiction to custard – and in particular flan, of any persuasion – is a peculiarity of all the women in my family, and it’s easy to see why:  soothing but classy, rich but light, sweet but never cloying, it is the perfect dessert.  (Yes, I said the perfect dessert:  chocolate is not dessert, it is a meal.)  And I am very, very fussy about my flan and crème caramel.

See – flan and crème caramel aren’t just about the flavour, they are about the texture.

What is wrong with this picture?  Well, there’s nothing wrong with the picture per se, it is very nicely shot, but the dessert itself?  Check out the dots all over the sides:  they are air bubbles, and have no place in either flan or crème caramel.  So while I’m sure it tasted very nice (I didn’t make this one, just found the picture on the Internet), the texture, the mouthfeel – which are every bit a part of the experience as flavour – would be all wrong.  What a shame.

And so easy to avoid.  You avoid air bubbles by simply not incorporating air into the mixture:  you lightly break up eggs, and you mix in, not beat, the remaining ingredients.  And you stay the hell away from recipes telling you to use electric beaters, blender, or food processor.

Here are the ingredients (plus a little vanilla, if you like).  It’s a little unbelievable that so few ingredients will make a dessert worthy of going on bended knee for, but oh, they will.  They so will.

First, you make a caramel and line a pan with it.  How do you do that?  Glad you asked!

Next, you lightly beat the eggs.  Now I am being very serious here:  you just want to barely combine yolk and whites, and this amount of bubbles, just on the surface, is about the maximum you want.

Add remaining ingredients, combine, and again:  see?  Very few bubbles.

Pour into your caramel-lined mould or pan.

Your dessert needs to be cooked au bain Marie, or in a water bath.  Ignore any recipe that tells you to put in hot or boiling water:  water MUST be cold or you will run the risk of cooking it too fast and again, wrecking the texture.

Remove from water bath as soon as it’s done, cool, then chill, preferably overnight, before unmoulding.   

This makes a firm flan – firm enough to cut and handle with ease.  If you would like a wobblier flan, you can use 1 1/2 tins of coconut cream.  Although we had our mangoes plain as a foil to the richness of the custard, they are also lovely drizzled with a lime and ginger syrup just before serving.
(8 servings)

3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
6 eggs
1 tin (395g.) condensed milk
1 tin (400ml) coconut cream
 1tsp. vanilla (opt.)
4 perfect mangoes, to serve

What you do:
1.  Make up caramel with sugar and water and use it to line a mould or pan, or 8 ramekins or crème caramel moulds.  Set aside while you proceed with recipe.
2.  Preheat oven to 160oC.  In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs, just until whites and yolks are amalgamated.  Add remaining ingredients, and stir (not beat) with a whisk, just until combined.  (The condensed milk tends to settle to the bottom of the bowl, so make sure that even though you’re using a light hand, you’re being thorough.)
3.  Pour mixture into caramel-lined mould/s.  Set in a roasting pan, and pour enough cold water into the roasting pan to come about 3cm up the sides.  Bake 50-60 min. for one mould, or 30-35 min. for individual servings, until custard is set and only just wobbles in the very centre. 
4.  Remove custard from roasting pan, and allow to cool at room temperature, then transfer to ‘fridge and allow to chill several hours, preferably overnight.  To unmould, there’s no need to loosen the sides.  Place serving plate over the top of the custard, then flip upside down.  It will fall out without problem, and caramel will flood the top and pool around the sides effortlessly, and look like a picture.  Halve mangoes and serve with flan.  

Yumbo McGillicutty!