Saturday, 5 May 2007

Kitchen Diaries: Double Ginger Cake

It's spring, and there are good seasonal ingredients again! After last night's warm salad of Jersey Royals, asparagus and bacon with the world's faffiest artichokes, we were in need of a little extra somethin'. No chocolate or cream in the house to lift those pears in the fruit bowl out of obscurity, so we embarked on making a cake.

(Ok. So all my posts are about cake. Even the salmon was in cake form. I might have certain... proclivities. )

Yes, a cake. Listening to Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, I hauled the multitude of ingredients out of the store cupboard to make this near-perfect ginger cake. It's one of my favourites in the book - especially because I've never, never had all the ingredients it calls for in the right quantity, and substitutions never seem to ruin it.

In the past I've had to use plain caster sugar instead of dark muscovado, marmalade for the syrup, and possibly some dried apricots for the sultanas. It always tastes just as good. This time, a little treacle is required.

I think its advantage is that you don't need to cream the butter and sugar at the start. By melting the wet ingredients together, the whole thing seems a lot more incorporated and smooth - this must maximise air bubbles that give it such a beautiful lightness.

The top of the cake crisps to add seductive bite. I can only suggest you try a sizeable square, warm from the oven, with a dollop of freshly whipped cream on the top for a completely erotic experience.

But like the best lovers, this cake is still good the next day. Ok, the crispy edge has gone and its perfume isn't as strong, but it's mighty fine with a cup of tea in a sunbeam.

Please, make a date with this pudding. And get a whole bunch more by buying Nigel's Kitchen Diaries through our Amazon store. Now available in paperback for the weak-limbed!


Friday, 27 April 2007

Kitchen Diaries: Mustard Chops

There aren’t many great shops in the areas I shop, so it’s doubly annoying that the few there are shut at the time I’m leaving work across town. This leaves the palace of Mr Sainsbury’s glittering delights responsible for filling my sorry cupboards.

As I leave for work this morning, I flick through the Kitchen Diaries and go for Mustard Chops – it’s just garlic, lemon, grain mustard, olive oil and lamb chops. But this evening there is no lamb whatsoever in Sainsburys. I decide not to be meatist and go for pork instead.

It’s a kids play recipe, bash the ingredients into a marinade, leave the meat in it for a bit, and cook. Nigel says grill, I read barbeque! We have it with bbq veg in pesto couscous and announce the beginning of summer.

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Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Kitchen Diaries: Pork and Lemon Polpettini (April 20)

Pork and Lemon PolpettiniHaving been raised as a non-pork eater (read Hindu), and lacking much experience cooking it or even eating it, when it comes to cooking a dish that calls for pork, I don’t feel very confident in the kitchen. I worry it is not seasoned properly, does not smell right and never sure if it I’ve cooked it for long enough, despite what recipe says. Despite the simplicity of this recipe, all of those thoughts were galloping through my head.

Anyway, this is the first time trying a Kitchen Diaries recipe where I have every single ingredient and did not have to improvise and skimp on anything, so I put my self-doubt aside and get stuck in.

Pork and Lemon PolpettiniI make fresh breadcrumbs out of half a ciabatta roll I baked the day before, chopping this up into the smallest crumbs possible, then make quick work of some curly parsley; chucking both of these into a large bowl along with all the other ingredients. The only thing that took any time at all was stripping the thyme leaves from the stalks and opening the tin of anchovies - yep, it was that quick.

The mixture comes to 19 balls, which I flatten slightly as instructed, dust with flour and leave to stand on a floured baking sheet until I’m ready to cook them.

Instead of pasta, I decide to serve these with a sweet potato and parsnip mash, and wait for their pot to boil before I start cooking the neat little patties. I’m extremely sensitive to the smell of chopped anchovies on my hands and despite washing them three times, twice with fresh lemon I can still get a faint whiff of fishiness. I wash them a fourth time while the meatballs bubble away in the butter and oil – success.

Once the patties are cooked I deglaze the frying pan (no heavy bottomed like Nigel's, unfortunately, but did the job just as well) with a little marsala wine before I pour in the stock, letting it bubble down to a shiny brown gravy.

Pork and Lemon PolpettiniNow, while these little meatballs are tasty – all lemony and slightly anchovied; delightlfully crispy on the outside but greatly textured within, I hesitate to descibe them as the the most delicious ones I’ve ever eaten - as much as I'd hoped I could. Sorry Nige. You see, the mother-in-law is Swedish, and they've spent centuries perfecting their's!
food nobody

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Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Kitchen Diaries: A Tale of Three Cakes

Lemon and Orange Cheesecake (April 22)
Really Fast Cake with Blueberries and Pears (May 15)
Strawberry Mascarpone Tart (June 24)

Three cakes? Well, it was my birthday party /baby shower at the weekend, and I'm one of those people who get as much or more pleasure from making my own cake as from eating it. So why stop at just one?

I've been a little suspicious of Nigel's baking recipes in the past - totally unwarranted, but I've had some rotten luck every time I try them out. Oven too hot, broken mixer, etc. But he's proven his cake chops with these rich, springtime puds.

I made the cheesecake and blueberry/pear cake the day before the party just in case my streak continued. Fortunate also because what time I saved in making the 'really fast' cake is totally taken up with the cheesecake. While combining the ingredients and making the crumb base is extremely simple, cooking the thing gets a trifle more complicated.

American cheesecake (my preferred style) is baked long and slow, to a consistency which could doubtless be used to smother a man. Last week, at the one good restaurant in Wood Green, we were served something in the European quivvery, moussey style that was tasty but unsatisfying. I worried, what with the gentle cooking in a bain marie, whether Nigel's would fall into the latter camp. Though it doesn't quite splinter and flake as a real NY brick, the mascarpone/egg/cream/cream cheese blend provides the desired suffocating density. It ends up being the favourite from those greedy enough to try all three.

While the oven cooled with the cheesecake inside (for a good hour or so), I set to work chopping pears and blitzing batter for the 'emergency' cake. The 'classic "equal butter to sugar to flour" base' recipe Nigel quotes isn't known to me, but I'm willing to try it out in the next few months. It makes a much stiffer dough than the sponge batter I would expect. I also increase the ingredients slightly to stretch it for more people. I don't know what the egg part of the ratio is, so I stick to two - might account for its texture.

The batter is pretty thin in the tin so I don't skimp on the fruit - squishing it into the batter in the hopes it raises up during the baking. It doesn't disappoint, but I expect it would taste nicer warm with a dollop of Greek yoghurt for breakfast.

Saturday morning is time to make the strawberry tart. I can't get behind the base as suggested. I use all butter shortbread rather than the super posh biscuits - I assume he means the Duchy ones? - to save pennies. And it is impossible to shape in the tart dish without really squishing it together, so no crumbly pebbly texture. This does help in serving it later, except for the first piece which came out looking more like an Eton mess (sorry, Dave).

The only problem with the recipe is that he underestimates wildly the amount of strawberries. I sliced closer to 500g onto the top than the 250g suggested. I doubt he was really paying attention at the time, just adding until it was covered. Oh, and could a tart look that good in a rectangular tin? I can't imagine it, and anyway I don't have one. Round is pretty enough.

Secretly, everyone's pleased that a few people haven't shown up. One person actually said, 'I had four helpings, and I'm not even a pudding person.' Well, if that's not praise enough for Nigel's cakes, I don't know what is.

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Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Kitchen Diaries: Asparagus and Lemon Risotto

I have never been able to list risotto making as one of my superpowers, but after this outing, I'm definitely going to have to update my CV.

Anyway, Nigel's Asparagus and Lemon Risotto (May 26) calls for arborio rice, but seeing as I only had a handful of vialone nano and full bag of carnaroli hanging about in the back of the cupboard (Yawn. Don’t I sound like the uncontrived foodie), there were to be no arguments on that Italian frontier. I also only had 200g of asparagus which is seemed like a crime to chop up into bits, but that amount worked out much better. I think 400g of asparagus for only 200g of rice would have been like having some rice flecked with asparagus.

Now let’s talk about quantities - for two people, one with a Viking appetite (well he’s Swedish), 200g was not going to be enough, especially for a main course, so I ingeniously upped this to 280g and added garlic steamed cod fillets on the side.

I also reduced the lemon to one, another ingenious decision because it would certainly have been far too lemony for our tastebuds, even when fillets of fish swam into the picture. I also used shallots instead of ordinary onions and these added a subtle sweetness, and chardonnay left over from the weekend’s heatwave.

Nigel recommends using a chicken stock over vegetable, saying it would be devoid of soul without the glutinous chickeness, and lack a silky texture, but I disagree. I used a rich vegetable stock, with a dark colour and deep flavour (in concentrated liquid form from S’bury’s Taste the Difference range), and the texture was by no means unrefined. One thing about the stock, though, I found Nigel’s recommended 1 litre was too much - I only got through about 750ml of the liquid.

Another thing, Nige does not go into risotto making technique much, so I adopted what I’ve seen done on the telly, and instead of adding just one ladle of stock at a time, I used a few generous ones at once, and that probably saved me from having an outbreak of risotto arm this morning.


Monday, 16 April 2007

Kitchen Diaries: Chicken and mustard seed and coconut milk

Wednesday night seems to call for chicken curry and I have most of the things Nigel suggests for “Chicken and mustard seed and coconut milk” (1st April, aka “A fragrant chicken supper”), apart from curry leaves. Obviously I’m not going to find them at 7.30pm in any Sainsburys.

Chicken browns, spices fry, my sister calls and the sauce simmers a little too close to black… But it’s a forgiving dish, I’m rough with quantities, use tomato puree for half the toms and dissolve coconut cream instead of using milk, but it’s still delicious. Subtle coconut, chunky onions and fragrant spices mean that I end up eating way too much and having to waddle upstairs with a glass of white.

Notes: Nigel’s offer of cooking an entire chicken this evening feels a little generous as I’m cooking for a lonely one, but I halve the recipe for 3 so that I get leftovers, and it seems to work fine. I also added a little sugar and black pepper at the end. I eat it with steamed edimamie on the side and they’re beautiful together.

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Kitchen Diaries: Salmon and Dill Fishcakes

This weekend's magnificent sunshine got me racing ahead to the summer months of the book, so here's one from May10. Much as I wanted to put the barbecue on at 10 in the morning and add sausages to it every hour on the hour, the reduced salmon fillets from Morrison's needed using up.

I instantly loved the idea of these fishcakes without the glutinous potato that in my hands often ends up a sloppy, greasy mess, rather than a light crisp shell. (Back in my student days, I used to make fishcakes with a tin of tuna and some Smash. There's an admission.)

I chop the fish in a large-ish dice to avoid cakes that are too uniform in texture - like those frozen Thai ones you get in cheapie restaurants, which could be any number of fish reduced to a paste and then fried.

There's not much dill in the fridge, so I mix in some chopped parsley. The mustard available is a fiestier Dijon, as opposed to the wholegrain in the recipe. The effect is probably a tad less delicate, but zingier. It's not a delicate lemon sole we're cooking - the salmon can handle it.

I'm in a hurry - the effect of pregnancy being a jump from zero to ravenous in 2.4 seconds. So I skip the cake forming and resting step, just spooning the fish directly into the pan like drop scones. They're fine. Just watch the temperature, so they don't burn before they're cooked in the middle - and don't skimp on the oil.

A few lettuce leaves and some thinly sliced fennel partner what are surprisingly rich fishcakes. The yoghurt with more dill, parsley and mustard cuts the richness, as does plenty of freshly squeezed lemon. Out in the garden with the Sunday papers, it smells of lemons, fresh fish, and coconut sunblock - just like being on holiday.

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