Thursday, 30 December 2010

Anyone for the last lonely slice of sea salted chocolate and pecan tart?

Fed up of the French "chocolate buche" (a variation on the yule log)
I attempted to tantalize the taste buds of my belle famille with this sea-salted chocolate and pecan tart, the recipe for which I pulled out of the January 2010 Home and Gardens magazine.

Any worries I had about the sucre salé tart not appealing to the French in laws was unfounded...seconds were called for leaving only one lonely slice which disappeared from the kitchen during the night.

The tart is very moreish so can be served on its own. The combination of chocolate, salt and pecans works very well and as there is only sugar in the base, this is tart not too sweet. For me this is like Reece's peanut butter cups for grown ups!

The original recipe called for 64% Madagascan dark chocolate but I used 70% Valrhona chocolate which worked well. Also it is important to use a good quality sugar free cocoa for the base if you can. This tart is best prepared well in advance of when needed as is time consuming - but good news is that it is worth it and tastes good for a few days after.

you will need:
pastry ingredients - 175G butter (at room temperature), 75 golden caster sugar, 2 egg yolks, 250g of plain flour, 20g cocoa, 35ml water
filling ingredients - 200g of good quality 70% dark chocolate, 200ml of whipping cream, 200g light muscavado sugar, 10g maldon sea salt
topping ingredients - 100g pecan nut halves, 100g caster sugar, 1 tsp sea salt

to make:
first make pastry base: using a wooden spoon cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy then add egg yolks and water and mix well until all liquid has been incorporated. Gradually add the flour and cocoa to form a dough. Wrap in cling film, flatten with your hand and put in fridge for one hour. Sprinkle flour on a work surface (make sure you have enough room) and roll out the pastry to line a greased 24x2.5 cm tart ring. Then chill pastry (in tart tin) in fridge for a futher 15 minutes before blind baking(see note below) it in a 180° pre heated oven for 20 minutes and then bake for a further 5 minutes uncovered until the base is dry. Leave to cool.

for the filling: couldn't be easier - melt the chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of boiling water, when melted add the cream to he bowl and stir until you have a glossy and thick ganache. Then pour into the now cooled tartbase and stick in fridge for 2 hours.

for the topping: heat a heavy bottomed saucepan until warm and add the sugar continuously stirring until it forms a liquid caramel, then add the salt and mix well. Finally add the pecans and mix well before pouring the mixture on to greaseproof paper. (it is important to do this step quickly to make sure that the pecans do not get burned!). Spread out mixture using spatula and leave to cool. Once cooled break into pieces and scatter over top of tart.

Friday, 24 December 2010

A wonderful pre-Christmas splurge soup: celeriac, apple & nutmeg

This year Christmas is for us is is at the in laws in Limoges. The other half's mother is a very good cook but like most mother's has an innate tendancy to feed us like a goose being fattened up for foie gras when we are there. In France the main event dinner wise takes place on Christmas eve. This evening we will sit down to several courses, starting with appetizers of smoked salmon, followed by oysters and langoustines, then home-made foie gras, then some kind of stuffed bird - served with a chestnut puree, before the cheese plate gets passed around and then finally dessert. Dessert in this case will be a yule log from Yannick the local baker who really has a talent for coming up with the most unbelievable flavor combinations, that do not always necessarily work together. Take mango and coffee for instance!
Having learned from previous experience I have been trying not to go too hard on the mince pies and mulled wine this week, and have been making room in my stomach for this Christmas dinner by having lots of soup.
The first time I saw celeriac it arrived in an organic vegetable box when I was living in the UK and I did not know what to do with it. I have since learned to love this nutty and sweet root vegetable which lends itself to various cooking styles from puree, to roasted, to galettes.
This soup is very healthy with no cream what so ever, but it is so thick and comforting I promise you will not miss it! It also brings out the natural sweetneess of the celeriac which combines well with the warming nutmeg.
I got the idea for this soup from a puree recipe in one of Richard Corrigan's cook books where he adds apple to the celeriac mash.
You will need:
one large celeriac (the one I used was just over one kilo) peeled and roughly cut into large chunks
two medium sweet apples - peeled, cored and diced
two medium onions - peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp of ground nutmeg
on glass of apple juice (optional)
one tbs of olive oil
one ltr vegetable stock (a stock cube will do)
To make:
Heat olive oil in a large heavy bottomed saucepan, add onions and nutmeg and cook on a low heat until translucent, add the apple and cook unil both onion and apple are almost caramelised. Add the celeriac and cook for about five minutes while continuously stirring. Add the stock, bring to the boil, then turn down heat and cover saucepan with a lid and leave to simmer on a low heat for about 30 mins until celeriac is soft. Then blend using a hand blender. I like my soup quite thick but even so I diluted the soup down with glass of apple juice (200ml).
Delicious served with wild mushrooms served on toasted and buttered poilane bread (any sour dough bread toasted will do) scattered over with fresh herbs!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Is the humble mince pie the new cupcake?

This year the humble mince pie seems to be following the cupcake, every food magazine seems to be looking at ways to bring it up to date. Given the current economic climate and associated austerity measures is it any wonder that people are turning their back on the €10 cupcakes for BYO (bake you own). The problem with mince pies is that up until now they have been a bit like Marks and Spencers 100% cotton knickers, very comforting but not very sexy.

Welcome to Christmas 2010 and the mince pie has had a make over. One of this seasons favorites is the meringue topped mince pie which has featured in several magazines. I tried Brenda Costigan's (Irish Independent) recipe which more or less follows the same recipe as in my previous blog on mince pies except you bake the filled pastry case without a lid a first time and then bake it a second time topped with a meringue on a very low heat a seond time until the meringue is cooked.

The BBC Good Food Festive Collection 2010 probably has one of the most extensive collection of mince pie recipes. Although the season's favorite meringue version is missing there are many other variations on a theme from buttery mince pies, mincemeat custard pies, tipsy mince pie puffs, twinkle star mince pies, mincemeat croissants to chunky mince pie slices (featured here in photo straight out of oven and prior to being sliced).

The chunky mince pie slices are easy to make and could even be eaten for a festive breakfast. Ground almonds are sprinkled over a sheet of rolled out puff pastry which is on a greased baking sheet. Pecan nuts, dried cranberries, flaked almonds and an apple are all added to the mince meat mixture which is then spread on the puff pastry. Star shapes can be cut from any remaining pastry to top the mince meat to define portion slices. The stars are then egg washed before you put the whole thing in the oven to bake for 15 minutes at 220°c. Once cooled you can drizzle over some lemon icing.

Having tried several other mince pie recipes in addition the above, I realised that I am not a fashion victim. At the end of the day the pie that suits me best is the classical one: a rich shortbread pastry shell filled with luxurious mince meat & whiskey, served warm topped with a whiskey cream. There is good reason why a classic sees us through many seasons.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Smells like Christmas: spicy cookies

It should feel like Christmas; the tree is up and decorated, there is snow outside, Gareth Brook's Christmas CD is playing on loop, friends have been round for the obligatory mulled wine and mince pies, but it doesn't.

Something is missing and I am not sure what it is....there is the lack of Christmas presents under the tree, there will of course be the last minute rush to buy them, but there is something else missing and I can't quite put my finger on it.

Could it be that it just doesn't smell like Christmas? Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, the commonly used spices at this time of year and the ones that remind me of my childhood Christmases - it is amazing that my mam managed to do so much baking with 5 kids and a full time job! I figure that maybe what is missing is the smell of Christmas and decide to make some spicy Christmas cookies maybe even some edible decorations to hang from the tree.

The French just don't Christmas like us, after visits to a large Monoprix and three speciality cooking shops I gave up on trying to find Christmas themed cookie cutters and with it any notion of making Christmas decorations.

I finally managed to find a star shaped cookie cutter which is on the small side and part of a set with lots of shapes I am sure I will never find a use for. I will have to content myself with this and make a note to stock up on cookie cutters the next time I am home.

For those of you living in France - the golden syrup came from home but you can also get it in Ethnic Angels near Grand Blvd metro station.

For the cookies you will need:

100g of caster sugar
85g of softened butter
1 beaten egg
2 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tbsp golden syrup
1tsp baking powder
100g dark chocolate (optional)

In a large mixing bowl beat together the butter and sugar with an electric whisk until fluffy and light then slowly add the eggs while continuously beating.
Then stir in the spices, golden syrup, flour and baking powder. Shape dough into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and chill in fridge for about 1 hour. Heat oven to 180°c. On a cold floured surface roll out the dough to about 1/2 centimetre thick and cut out cookies using your chosen shapes.

Put on greased baking sheets and bake in oven until golden which should take about 10minutes.Chill on a wire rack. You can either dust with icing sugar or cover with chocolate. To cover with chocolate melt chocolate in a bain marie (bowl sitting on top of a saucepan of hot water), dip each biscuit in the chocolate and leave to cool on baking parchment.

These biscuits keep well in an air tight container for a few weeks - so also make ideal Christmas gifts especially if packaged in nicely decorated boxes.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

a warming pumpkin and cinnamon soup for a snowy day

Will this chilly weather ever end? Snow is falling in Paris again today and while it has turned the city into a winter wonderland (well at least until the rain chases the snow away) I am frozen right through to my bones.

It was on a similarly cold day a few weeks ago that I was in one of my favorite lunchtime spots in the 17th arrondisment of Paris, Bio 92 an organic restaurant. The restaurant is reasonably priced for Paris at €17 for a 3 course lunch - and the food is organic. The only drawback is that the service can sometimes be very slow. The menu changes daily - they do an excellent "cake" of aubergine filled with either quiona and vegetables or meat and vegetables, there is always at least one fish dish on offer. On this occasion there were two soups among the starters; carrot and coconut and pumpkin and cinnamon.

I plumped for the veloute of pumpkin and cinnamon and was not disappointed, it is a warm, sweet soup with the cinnamon accentuating the flavors. I have since tried it at home. The version below is more of a soup, but if you prefer you can add half the water to create a much thicker soup which is very creamy - without the need for cream or milk.

This is a really quick soup which will have you glowing again in no time at all, the addition of the cinnamon adds a Chrismassy touch.

You need:

one medium pumpkin or butternut squash
2 medium yellow onions
1 to 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of light sesame oil
1 ltr hot water

Peal the pumpkin using a vegetable peeler and cut into 2 inch chunks, peel and roughly chop the onions. Heat the oil in a large heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat and add onions and cinnamon, cook the onions on a low heat until they begin to caramelise. Next add the pumpkin or butternut squash, mixing well with the onions and fry for about 5 minutes. Then add water and bring to the boil before covering saucepan with a lid and simmering for about 15 minutes. After 15 mins test the pumpkin with a fork to see if cooked if so using a handblender blend the soup and serve immediately. Even more delicious served with either cornbread or onion muffins on the side.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

mince pies and all things nice

I love Christmas and the current cold spell calls for Christmas cheer a little bit earlier than usual. I pestered the other half this morning until he finally relented to the nagging and went out and bought a Christmas tree. I spent the morning decorating the tree and was determined to keep the Christmas theme going through to lunch time, with mince pies and a whiskey cream for an after lunch treat.

Having made the mistake last year of trying to buy mincemeat in France, I made my own a few weeks ago. I used the Ballmaloe recipe but replaced the suet with butter for a vegetarian version. Home made mincemeat needs at least a good three weeks to mature, if you haven't made it by now you better get started (or just pick up a jar of someone elses at a local Christmas market, but it also keeps for up to a year. For the mincemeat you need 2 large cooking apples which have been baked in the oven until soft, remove skins and mash flesh. The rind a juice of two lemons (untreated), 110g mixed peel, 225g each of currants and sultanas, 450g of raisins, 900g of dark brown sugar, 62ml of Irish whiskey, 2 tablespoons of orange marmalade and 450g of butter (melted). Couldn't be easier - in a large bowl add ingredients one by one stirring well after each addition. Put in jars, cover and leave to mature.

To make the mince pies: First heat the oven to 170°c. Next prepare the pastry and ok, here I cheated, having decided at the last minute to make mince pies for desert, I lacked both energy and ingredients to make a pastry so headed out to Picard (chain of up market frozen food stores in France) to buy a ready made one. If you are buying ready made pastry check that it is pure butter and does not have palm oil.

The pastry I bought was already rolled out, so all I had to do was cut out the shapes with a floured pastry cutter (or glass if you do not have pastry cutter) to make the pastry cases. Then repeat to make lids or if you prefer cut out some star shapes in the pastry.

I buttered well the bun tray before putting the pastry in but had a problem getting some of them out once they had been cooked. When I said this to my mam, she gave me a simple solution - line each hole in the bun tray with a small round of grease proof paper! I will be following this advice next time.

Fill each pastry case with mincemeat and top with either a lid or a star. If you top with a lid make sure to prick the pastry with a fork. Brush each pie with a little beaten egg. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until a pale golden colour before carefully removing from tin and leaving to cool on a wire rack.

Delicious served with some whipped cream spiked with a little bit of Irish whiskey!