Monday, 27 February 2012

Daring Bakers: persimmon and walnut spice bread

The Daring Bakers’ February 2012 host was – Lis! Lis stepped in last minute and challenged us to create a quick bread we could call our own. She supplied us with a base recipe and shared some recipes she loves from various websites and encouraged us to build upon them and create new flavor profiles.

This month's Daring Bakers challenge (my first ever; I was inspired to join in after enjoying my first Daring Cooks challenge - steamed pork buns - so much) required the making of a 'quick bread'. I admit, I wasn't sure what this meant at first - I've never really heard the term. A little read of the challenge instructions revealed all - a quick bread is basically a baked good that rises without yeast. Think banana bread, courgette bread, that kind of thing - these usually involve baking powder and/or bicarbonate of soda to make them rise. I was confused because I generally wouldn't think of these things as bread, or at least they're bread in name only because they come in a loaf tin. To me, such goods are really classed as loaf cakes (yeast = bread, therefore no yeast = cake), but if you want to make them sound vaguely healthier by calling them a quick bread, I'm not going to complain!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Blood orange, olive oil and cardamom syrup cake

A couple of days ago, a man came to our house selling olive oil. Not just any olive oil - extra virgin, cold-milled, mechanically pressed, low-acidity, award-winning, Calabrian olive oil. This oil had been exported by the Barbalace family on whose farm it was produced, and a nice Italian man was going round Cambridge extolling its virtues and selling it for them. 

I guess that speaks volumes about what kind of neighbourhood I live in. The kind of place where people are likely to understand the subtleties of different olive oils, know their virgin from their extra virgin and appreciate the virtues of mechanical pressing. And, of course, pay a not-insubstantial amount of money to procure a three-litre can of this lovely product. No wonder I'm such a food snob.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Crêpes with goat's cheese, walnuts and caramelised russet apples

Pancakes were, I think, the first dinner I ever made for my family. I'm not sure what set me off on the idea, but somewhere during my childhood I was shown how to turn a simple mixture of milk, flour and eggs into something magical, ideal for stuffing with all sorts of delicious things. Every now and again, when the whim took me, I would ask my mum if I could cook that night. Naturally, she was always delighted and assented without further ado. I'd find myself at the hob flipping pancake after pancake, feeling a rather satisfactory sense of pride at the notion I was both giving her a break from cooking and getting to eat delicious fare at the same time. Perhaps the thrill of it appealed to my inner drama queen - the sizzling of the batter as it hits the hot pan and starts to set immediately; the theatrical flick required to flip the pancake in its pan rather than chickening out and using a palette knife; the frenzy of bringing crêpe after crêpe to the table, replenishing empty plates as soon as the last mouthful has been swallowed.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Roast mallard with Seville orange sauce

Mallard is an underrated bird. It has several advantages over its farmed counterpart, duck. First of all, it takes a fraction of the time to cook. Roasting a duck will take you at least an hour or maybe two; mallard needs only about fifteen minutes in the oven, if that. Secondly, you can pretty much guarantee it's free range and has lived a good life, as with a lot of game. Thirdly, it's much lower in fat than duck but still delicious. And finally, it has a stronger, gamier, richer flavour than farmed duck, making it ideal for pairing with slightly more flavoursome, fruitier sauces. 

One thing you must know: never, ever overcook a mallard. Like pigeon, this is a bird that has to be served dark, at most medium rare, and preferably oozing a little blood. You may find recipes suggesting you can pot roast or braise a mallard for hours to tenderise it: please don't. Sear it in a very hot pan, scorch it in a very hot oven, then serve it pink and delicious. Otherwise you may as well eat your own shoes.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Wild rabbit and barley salad with caramelised russet apples

One of the downsides of working so close to a rather foodie area of town (well, for Cambridge, that is - so basically anywhere that doesn't have a Pizza Express, Nandos and Starbucks right next to each other) is that I inevitably end up drawn there in my lunch break. I have to get out at lunchtime, get some fresh air, walk and clear my head. These things are necessary. What is perhaps not quite so necessary is going to the butchers and the oriental grocers every time. 

I can't help it. I hate walking without a purpose; even if my end goal is just to peruse aisles of weird and wonderful produce in jars, I need something to spur me on. Plus there is always something new and fascinating at the end of the tunnel: huge bunches of weird and wonderful Chinese greenery that I've never seen before; tofu in every conceivable shape, size and texture; giant bottles of soy sauce and other condiments; huge bags of rice, noodles and pulses. There's also stuff that's just downright weird, such as various undesirable bits of seafood or animal in big, bloodied bags in the freezer section. Still, I consider this my culinary education and I'd hate to miss out on it. 

Monday, 13 February 2012

Spelt and seed bagels

Ah, the bagel. On a par with Starbucks for its ability to exude a highly contrived air of Manhattan-style chic and sophistication, the bagel is perhaps, after pizza and baguettes, the world's most iconic bread product. I remember thinking I was so cool the day I convinced Mum to buy me a packet of bagels from the supermarket, back in the days where the parents had total control over what foodstuffs were present in our household (other regular items I sneaked into the trolley included Frazzles, those ghastly yet so good bacon-flavoured crisps, and Yum Yums which, if you've never tried one, are like long twisty doughnuts with crunchy sugar icing and, sorry, where have you been living for the last god knows how long?)

I remember that first moment where the bagel emerged from the toaster, its glossy, firm exterior feeling slightly sticky to the touch, its crumb possessing a density quite unlike any other dough-based product I'd sampled. I remember slathering it with butter and eating it for breakfast, and wanting more - that subtle sweetness combined with the chewy crust was a new and addictive combination. But most of all I remember feeling grown-up, cosmopolitan, worthy of mingling with the cast of Friends - thus far my only real insight into the world of cool New Yorkers. The bagel was not an English muffin or a white roll. It was not even a baguette or a ciabatta. The bagel was beyond such rustic frivolity, whispering hints of urban sophistication and a well-heeled life lived amidst vibrant, bustling city streets. It was cool.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Oxtail with prunes, orange and star anise

Sometimes you forget just how good certain things are. 

After a few days of snow and ice, you forget how wonderful it is to be able to walk freely along the pavement without risking life and limb, until you get to a non-icy patch and feel that delicious sense of liberation. After months of habitually using showers as your primary method of self-cleansing, you forget quite how wonderful long, hot baths can be until you have one. Bubbles and all. After cooking your own and your family's dinner every day for weeks, months even, you forget quite how amazing it is to just be called down from your room and find dinner on the table. You forget how anything tastes good if it's been made by someone else. After always cycling everywhere in the bitter cold, you forget how good it can feel to just get into a taxi, relish the warmth, and worry about the expense another time. 

That sensation of remembering long-forgotten luxuries in life is something to be cherished, I think.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Banana oatmeal waffles

Last night, it started snowing. Feather-light flakes were falling from the sky as my boyfriend and I left the house to walk to town for dinner. We lingered over dim sum - gorgeous cloud-like cha siu pork buns; sticky, ginger-spiced prawn dumplings; wispy fried taro paste croquettes with a creamy and delectable meat filling - for about an hour and a half. When we emerged, we found the snow whirling fast and furious through the air, and at least two inches on the ground. Fast forward three hours later to exiting the cinema, and I was sinking in snow halfway up to my calves. There was a sweet and beautiful silence all around as we trudged home, stopping for a childish detour to run madly over a pristine patch of virgin snow, tutting at people attempting to drive, and incredulous as we spied girls sporting bare legs and heels. (If you are one of those types, I honestly would love to know how you do it - email me).