Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Winter ice cream

It is rumoured that we have a Frenchman’s ingenuity to thank for ice-cream. The story goes that Charles I of England staged a great banquet, at which a chef named DeMirco served it as the grand finale. The frozen cream was such a raving hit that, to ensure it remained solely a regal delicacy, Charles offered him £500 to keep the recipe to himself. Evidently this wasn’t enough – the secret was out by the time the king’s head rolled in 1659.

Romantic as this story is, Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir, authors of Ices: The Definitive Guide, insist such tales were marketing ploys of 19th century vendors. Yet we do know that people have, undeterred by a comparative lack of technology, been enjoying variations on the ice-cream theme for centuries. If they could do it with nothing but a hand whisk and elbow grease, it seems a touch wimpy to let a little thing like winter get in the way of enjoying the stuff.

Can ice-cream be warming? It seems unlikely, but if you've ever had black rice pudding with coconut ice-cream at a Thai restaurant, you'll know the freezing scoop just makes it all the more soothing. With chefs serving up everything from balsamic sorbet (great with raspberries) to bacon and egg ice-cream, it seems ices have finally graduated from their traditional spot in a sandy cone on some windy summer beach.

In my opinion, there is no better time for this most frivolous of food stuffs than miserable February, with just the commercialised froth of Valentine’s to disguise the fact that it’s the dog-end of winter. By this point everyone’s sick of living off beef stew, and desperate to cast off memories of Christmas pudding, rich gravies and anything involving suet. There’s nothing like brain-freeze to take you straight to a tropical island, with sweetened cream to make up for the fact that it’s purely imaginary.

The beauty of ice-cream is that it’s a blank canvas. Made from either a meringue or a custard base, it can be experimented with to indulge all manner of seasonal whims. If you can’t face a bowl of solo ice-cream, try it with a more comforting partner – apple pie with cinnamon and date ice-cream? Treacle tart with a scoop of ginger?

I won’t lie – it’s not quick to make. There’s infusing of milk to be done, custards to be made, nuts to be roasted and cream to be whipped. If you don’t have an ice-cream maker, you’ll have to stir the stuff every few hours to break up the ice crystals. But what better way to spend a stormy Sunday afternoon than making caramel, zesting oranges and looking forward to a bowl of sugared ice?

My top five winter ice-cream flavours:
  1. Cinnamon and date
  2. Praline and cranberry (yum - roast nuts, mix into caramel, leave to harden before snapping into little pieces. Mix this and dried cranberries into a meringue ice-cream base)
  3. Pear and Earl Grey
  4. Orange and ginger
  5. Rhubarb

Cinnamon and Date + Orange and Ginger ice creams

Cinnamon and date ice-cream:
290ml/½  pint milk
290ml/½ pint double cream
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground cinnamon
6 egg yolks
100g/3½ oz caster sugar
100g dates, stoned

  1. Put the vanilla pod, the cinnamon stick, half the dates and the milk and cream in a heavy saucepan – bring to just below the boil. Remove the dates.
  2. Make a custard: beat the egg yolks with the sugar until creamy, add the milk/cream mixture gradually and whisk together.
  3. Add the ground cinnamon and stir constantly until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Strain through a sieve into a bowl and leave to cool.
  4. Chop up all the dates, including the heated ones (which will be a bit mushy). It’s up to you how fine you like the bits in your ice-cream.
  5. Stir them into your custard, and pour into your ice-cream maker. If you don’t have one, pour into a container, and remove it from the fridge every few hours to beat the ice crystals out until frozen and smooth. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Hospital food: a review

I'm fortunate enough to have avoided staying in hospital for most of my life. I ended up there once, aged about 13, with suspected appendicitis. I was nil-by-mouth just in case, my family were away, and the hospital forgot to feed me for three days.

I now realise this was a lucky escape. Last week I was in the Royal Infirmary for a couple of days, and anything that involved the staff was admirable in every way. The doctors and nurses were spectacular, keeping everyone comforted, comfortable and (very important) informed as to what was going on. They were supportive and kind from walking in the door to walking out of it. Really, I saw absolutely none of the alleged compassion deficit in the NHS, not a hint of it.

All the non-clinical services supplied by Balfour Beatty (a 50% shareholder in Consort Healthcare, the company contracted to build the RI in 1998) were breathtakingly capitalist, transparently designed to squeeze as much money out of their unfortunately captive audience as possible. I was against PFI for providing public services before my short stay, but now I believe it is, in its current guise, failing us all. I'm aware that all the things I noticed in just a couple of days are pretty much standard throughout hospitals in the UK, which makes them even more perfidious. I'm also aware that there are complex financial reasons (we're all broke) behind the decision to finance major public services in this way, but when it comes to the food IT IS JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

The other charges, while dreadful, can perhaps come down to a bottom line of "we just can't afford anything else". Family struggling to visit because it costs £7 to park for a day, or £3.30 to park for visiting hours twice a day. My husband easily racked up £20 in five or six visits. There's the bedside 'entertainment system' (though with only 50 films advertised, I'm not sure how entertaining it really is) that charges you to watch TV, films, and even to call people. Thank god the blindest of eyes was turned when we all ignored the signs above our beds instructing us to use mobiles in the designated areas, or I wouldn't even have been able to call my mum (because I am stubborn, and REFUSE to pay to call my mum when in hospital).

But, Balfour Beatty, there is absolutely no excuse for the food that came my way. Rice Crispies (the only time I ate a whole portion of something); cheap white bread; damp tuna sandwiches in a plastic box that made garage sarnies look posh, lacking even lettuce to freshen them up. A finger of 'lasagne' with no white sauce, shamefacedly hiding washed out veg between its layers of chewy pasta, so salty I couldn't finish even my small portion. No sides of salad or veg, ever. Fake ice cream, the type that doesn't melt for a suspiciously long time. Harsh concentrated orange juice, and porridge so nasty I managed three spoonfuls - made with water and salt, from the taste. 'Boeuf bourguignon' that I only managed two forks of, with extraordinary flavour that certainly didn't come from a cow, tomatoes, stock, wine or herbs. I ate my three potato croquettes, which were floury and processed.

Balfour Beatty, these people are UNWELL. I'm greedy, and I couldn't eat this stuff. I had a caring husband bringing me Pret salads, but what about the three other people in my ward who didn't have family who could rush food to them on a daily basis? What about the people who may not even mind food of this standard, who don't eat well normally, but who miss out on the one time of their lives when governments, normally so vocal on how we should eat, could actually dictate decent food to improve our health? This should be a chance not only to impress people who expect good food, but to introduce proper food to that captive audience. Though by the looks of this Qype page, the food's not currently keeping anyone happy.

There's a time and a place for saving money, and it's not by scrimping a couple of pence by making porridge with water. Why Muller Light yoghurts? They're pricy, sugary and full of crap. If you're making lasagne anyway, even if you then ship in over in plastic cartons, why not make it properly? It doesn't have to be this way. Just last month, Mike Duckett won the Derek Cooper award at the Radio 4 Food and Farming ceremony, for making huge strides in serving not just ok food (as would have been a huge improvement) but really good food, the kind of food you'd lovingly create for your own sick child. The Radio 4 page describes him as:

"Former head of catering at the Royal Brompton hospital where every meal is cooked on the premises using fresh, local ingredients, and thirty per cent of the food is organic or locally sourced, with organic meats appearing on the menu at least once a week. Mike Duckett has been leading the way in improving the quality of public catering across the UK, and his work is followed by governments around Europe, The nomination said, “Mike's work connects many small producers around the UK by supplying those who care about food and nutrition standards, and those staff, families and ill people who need to eat the food in hospitals.”

It's just food. This hospital gives people new hearts, helps them walk again, delivers babies, fits new limbs, cleans people's blood and somehow finds the time to comfort hundreds of thousands of patients a year. A decent bowl of porridge is surely not too difficult?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Bread Matters: a weekend of bread making

(Note - except the first, all photos in this post were taken by Veronica Burke of Bread Matters.)

I haven’t bought a sliced supermarket loaf in a long time, but I’m a long way away from bread mastery. After my struggle to produce a good loaf for Britain’s Best Dish (baking four loaves a week was just a conveyor belt of disappointments) I’d finally managed to turn out something you might enjoy eating by getting the bread maker to do the dough, and then shoving it in the oven. I couldn’t even get the bread maker to do a decent job otherwise.

Then I went on Andrew Whitley’s Bread Matters bread-making masterclass, 'A Weekend of Bread and Wine' (have you ever heard of a more appealing combination?) – though at a day and a half of baking, it was more like five masterclasses divided by tea, cake and lunch. The class was run in partnership with the Horseshoe Inn at Eddleston; most of the other students were staying there, and that evening there was a wonderful sounding dinner at the Inn, complete with talks about bread, four courses stuffed with local food (accompanied by the best bread in Scotland, of course) and biodynamic wines. Sadly I couldn't make it as I was at the also wonderful Charlie and Evelyn's Table supper club, but after the two days I came home with this, all made by me:

L-R: ciabatta, croissants, Borodinsky rye bread, stollen, pain de campagne
Check out my pain de campagne!

When Andrew told us of an ex-student whose bread always rose better than everyone else’s because he was blessed with hands full of good bacteria, I began to wonder if I was the opposite – cursed with hands that killed loaves. I was proved wrong. The only thing killing my loaves was not knowing how to make them properly.

Andrew Whitley
Andrew makes sourdough breads. Of the five breads we made, yeast was only added to the croissant dough. I’d always thought sourdough was something you could only make if you had a lot of time to lavish on bread-making, but with forward planning, it’s easy to incorporate it into a working day. We all left with some of the Bread Matters rye leaven, so I’ll use that as an example: refresh the leaven in the morning (not feed it: you feed animals, not starters), come home from work and make the dough, leave it to prove for 2-4 hours while making dinner etc, then bake it before bed. Keeping enough leaven back to make a new loaf next week, of course.

Raw croissants
The class took place in Andrew and Veronica’s home in West Linton – near Whitmuir Farm Shop, for a point of reference. Classes have been run from Macbiehill Farmhouse since the company moved from Cumbria in 2009, and they’ve built a beautiful kitchen and work space. Large windows show weather fronts coursing across open fields towards the Broughton Hills, and lunch was had with the sun warming our backs, even in November. Seven of us, plus Andrew, worked at wooden tables, with the focal point being the huge wood fired brick oven that, sadly, gave everything an edge that’s going to be missed with my leaky old kitchen oven. We all had a go at depositing our pain de campagne into the oven from the wooden peel (slowly forward then draw it sharply back), most of us committing the rookie crimes of either shoogling, hesitating or, in my case, totally missing the stone I was aiming for. The loaves survived, despite everything.

Beautiful view
Macbiehill is set in five acres of certified organic farmland, and everything we ate flew the flag for an organic, sustainable way of life. Everything was recycled, ecological and energy-saving; the farmhouse itself is run on renewable energy. The bread flour is organic, as was all the wonderful food Veronica prepared for us in our regular breaks - soup, artisan cheese, mushroom quiche, salad from the garden and quinoa with fried green tomatoes, fresh cake and smart fruit skewers.

It doesn't get much better than freshly made croissants and home-made marmalade.
Good bread’s not just about taste for Andrew, but is very much interlinked to the fundamentals of creating an economic and sociological template that can bring about a sustainable, ethical and practical way of living from an individual point of view right up to a national one. He co-founded the UK-wide Real Bread campaign, and is a founding member of the Whitmuir Breadshare Community Bakery. He is campaigning for better distribution of Scottish wheat (it’s currently impossible to buy Scottish flour in Scotland, though as I wrote this I found Flourish Flour, a company that will start selling just that in Jan 2013), more wheat to be grown here, and more research into the impact of crap vs proper bread on the human body. (See an article of his on why bread is making so many people sick here.)

An emphasis of the Andrew’s good-humoured, extremely knowledgeable tuition is stripping away the many myths that even experienced bakers ascribe to. The need to constantly ‘feed’ leavens, for example (a waste of time. Did you know there’s even a sourdough starter hotel in Stockholm that will unnecessarily feed your starter for you when you’re away?) The need to knead some doughs – the leaven does all or most of the work to sourdough bread. We didn’t knead the Borodinsky rye bread at all. What we have come to expect of our croissants – they’re supposed to be crescents, for starters, the clue’s in the name. Not those mass-produced, pappy, lazily straight rolls of Chorleywood air that have become ubiquitous. And there were tips, as well, picked up from a career of baking – Andrew started and ran the famous Village Bakery from 1976 to 2002

I’m not going to run you through how we made everything – you can try it all for yourself in Andrew’s book, Bread Matters, a copy of which we were all sent away with. I highly recommend you do – there really is nothing like your own croissants, and I’ve not even tried my stollen yet.

With my fellow bakers!
Concentrating on making the perfect stollen
Andrew’s top five tips from my Bread Matters course (picked by me, not him!):
1.       To pick up thin pastry, marzipan, royal icing etc after you’ve rolled it out, quickly press the rolling pin across one end so the pastry/marzipan sticks to it, then roll it up over the pin, before unrolling back over your pie/stollen/baked good.
2.       Don’t knead dough on a floured surface – if it’s going to stick, wet the surface with water rather than use flour. More flour = stiffer, denser dough. Similarly, don’t be afraid of a sticky dough, better too wet than too dry.
3.       If your bread is sticking to the bottom of your bread tin, sprinkle a layer of seeds, e.g. sunflower or coriander in before you put your dough in. The heat of the oven makes them release some of their oils, helping bread turn out more easily.
4.       ‘Air knead’ bread by stretching it between your hands, rather than pummelling on the work surface. It allows more of the dough to be worked at a time, and means you don’t need to flour the work surface, thereby adding more flour to your bread and making it stiffer.
5.       To get wet dough neatly into your bread tin, as with our Borodinsky rye bread: scrape as much dough from your hands as possible (or hand, as you should only mix dough with one hand); wet your hands and your dough scrapers; scrape the dough from the sides of the bowl down to the middle and scoop it all onto one wet hand; with the other wet hand shape it until it’s neat (like clay); pop it into your tin. Simple!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

My brother cooks us lunch at the Wordsworth Hotel's Signature Restaurant

It is perhaps surprising that so many of my siblings have got seriously into food, coming from parents who, while respecting and appreciating it, didn’t make food a big part of our upbringing. None are more serious than my brother Jaid (Smallman: different surname, long story), who is head chef at the Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere, one of that cluster of picturesque, visitor-packed Lake District walking towns. Jaid, like so many including yours truly, hadn't an inkling of what he wanted to do as an eighteen year old, so my dad got him a job at a friend’s neighbourhood restaurant, peeling potatoes.

Crisp cod cheeks, carrot mousse, salt cod panna cotta, pancetta crumb, red vein sorrel
From there he moved single-mindedly, ambitiously and hard-graftingly through a number of the best restaurants around the Lakes, including being part of the team when The Samling won and retained its Michelin star. He is just one of those people who is a chef, usually for better and occasionally for worse – long hours away from his fiancée and daughter, working Christmases every year, arms covered in burns and knife cuts (though his teenage penchant for juggling with them didn’t help). Basically, I play at being interested in food, and he gets right down to it.

Cuts of Lyth Valley lamb, potato gratin, black cabbage, smoked garlic, rosemary scented jus (only slightly eaten before I remembered to take a photo)
I’ve only eaten in one of his restaurants before, at the Castle Green Hotel. A few years ago, it was one of the most memorable meals of my life, only partly because my husband and I got treated like Kate and Wills on a night out. Jaid and I share a pretty similar attitude to food – a fascination with gadgetry and experimentation, when combined with a solid skill base, superb ingredients and serves a function,even if that function is just to raise a smile. Thus we pored over his Noma cookbook (can it be called that? Jaid could, I couldn’t), he showed me a film of a 'sonic screwdriver' that emulsifies food with sound waves, and talked me through the amazing photos of his meal at nearby L’Enclume (chefs photograph their food too, it’s not just bloggers!).

Textures of foraged brambles, pear mousse, cobnut crumble, wood sorrel
And he has put as much of this as he can into the menu of the fine dining Signature restaurant. Running this hotel’s kitchen is particularly challenging – no chef before Jaid has lasted long – and a logistical web. Every day, the chefs are sending complicated, multi-faceted dishes out to the Signature, and an informal menu out to the large Dove café/bistro. So he’s effectively head cheffing two restaurants at the same time, and, as he admits, the food’s never been as good. There’s only so far he can push a hotel menu, and he’s shuffled right up to that line: our dishes variously contained pancetta powder, black garlic powder (fascinatingly brilliant white), chestnut cappuccino (the foamy soup, not the coffee drink), lamb tongue croquettes, sweetbreads and a wonderfully fresh, simple, and – I thought – brave starter of orange terrine with watermelon cubes.

Orange terrine, watermelon 'Turkish Delight', natural yoghurt
On a rainy Tuesday lunchtime we thought things would be fortunately quiet, and so they were in the Signature. We were getting the friends-in-high-places treatment – complimentary fizz, the full dinner menu rather than the more limited lunch menu – thinking things were serene in the kitchen. Then Jaid came out during pudding, shaking slightly, from a lunch service that had just seen a coach load of 30 tourists walk in to the Dove unannounced. He should have just told us to order fish and chips and pipe down…I’m very glad he didn’t though.

Anne Forshaw's yoghurt mousse, sweet clover meringue, English raspberry textures
A note on my very impressive nine-year-old niece: it looks like the food bug’s being passed down. “What’s your favourite food, Leia?” “Um, I’ve got loads, but I suppose it would be tiger king prawns or crab croquettes.” She pronounced the appetiser of chestnut mushroom foam with shaved truffle (my first ever!) and black garlic powder “interesting”, happily ate cod cheeks for a starter, and her child’s dish was a squeaky fresh bit of halibut, spinach and chips. She got full and left the chips. Then she ordered a huge bowl of coffee espuma with Kahlua jelly for pudding and ate the lot, before asking, “Daddy, can you make me this for my birthday?” 

Coffee espuma, Kahlua, vanilla, chocolate, honeycomb

Friday, 22 June 2012

Scotch eggs - the perfect picnic food (a recipe)

Jubilee Scotch Eggs

In my opinion, a Scotch egg is the perfect picnic food. They are incredibly satisfying; something you make once in a blue moon, at most; filling; reasonably bad for you in a hearty way, rather than a laboratory food way; and pretty much impossible to buy edible from supermarkets. Yes, fun picnics can come from a supermarket - spontaneous, completely fine picnics. But you should never, ever buy a Scotch egg from a supermarket as it will definitely be disgusting. The egg will be rubbery, over-cooked and almost guaranteed not to be free-range. The sausage meat will be under-seasoned, lurid pink mystery meat. But the worst bit is the bread-crumbed coating. This will be soggy, probably over-chilled straight from the refrigerated section, without a hint of crisp, freshly fried crumb to it.

Scotch eggs are having a bit of a moment right now. The Pea Green Boat, for example, have a stall at various markets, including Stockbridge, Out of the Blue Drill Hall and Portobello, devoted to many and varied incarnations, all of which will put the supermarket Scotchie to humiliated shame. And they're only sold for £2, last time I checked, which is about a fifth of what I would have been willing to sell my Scotch eggs for.

Because the other reason that Scotch eggs lend a sense of occasion to any picnic is that they are bloody fiddly to make properly, and give you an enormous sense of gratification when they come out of the fryer looking just as you'd hoped.

This is the recipe I followed. It is, allegedly, Heston B's, and is from a Waitrose card - as they were given out for free I hope it's ok to roughly reproduce it here (I've taken out the Waitrose product branding). And yes, you read that right - boil those eggs for exactly 1 minute 45 seconds. They'll be practically raw and a total arse to peel/wrap in sausage meat - the amount of Heston cursing you'll do while making these is in direct proportion to the amount of praise you'll give him whilst eating them.

Heston's Scotch eggs (makes 8, takes the best part of a morning...)

10 medium free-range eggs
450g sausagemeat, or 6 skinned sausages
1 heaped tsp thyme leaves (about 1/4 packet)
45g French mustard
1/2 level tsp cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
1 packet of chives, chopped
plain flour
50ml milk
125g breadcrumbs
Ground nut oil, for frying

1. Preheat the oven to 190C / gas mark 5. Place 8 eggs in a large pan in enough cold water to cover them by 2cm, place over a high heat. As soon as the water starts to simmer, set a timer for 1 minute 45 seconds exactly. While the eggs are cooking, fill a bowl with cold water and ice cubes and when the timer goes off plunge the eggs into the water to cool.

2. Put the sausagemeat in a bowl, add the thyme, mustard, cayenne pepper, seasoning, chopped chives and 2 tbsps water. Mix thoroughly and form 8 patties with your hands (dip your hands in cold water if the mixture sticks). Chill in the fridge for 20 mins.

3. Once the eggs are cool, gently remove the shells. [This will be freaking difficult, if my experience was anything to go by - you might want to boil an extra couple of eggs in case any totally fall apart.] Flatten each pattie into a circle and place an egg in the centre. Wrap the sausagemeat around the egg, pressing the edges in order to seal it. [I read a tip on another Heston Scotch eggs recipe (why does he need so many?) you might want to try - flatten the sausagemeat into a circle between two sheets of cling film, remove the top layer of film, place the egg on top and draw the clingfilm around it. This sounds easier.]

4. Fill a saucepan with oil deep enough to cover the eggs and heat it to 190C [or until a bit of bread dropped in sizzles and turns brown quite quickly]. Put the flour into a small bowl and season. In another dish, beat the remaining 2 eggs and add the milk. Put the breadcrumbs into a third. Roll each egg in the flour, gently tapping off the excess, then in the egg, then the breadcrumbs. Make sure it's coated all the way round.

5. Deep fry the Scotch eggs two at a time for 2 mins until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and put to drain on kitchen roll. When all the eggs have been fried put them on a baking tray and into the oven for 10 mins. Serve straight away while the yolks are still runny [although they never go properly hard, even after a couple of days - winner!]

The rest of the picnic...

Avocado, tomato and watercress salad, pastry-less quiches (see the upcoming It's Good 2 Give charity cookbook for that recipe!), sausage rolls and the almighty Scotch egg

Eton mess, of course, on a jubilee appropriate table cloth