thoran (keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)

27 Jan

thoran

I wrote every day in India. I kept a mental list of images, faces, phrases until I could scribble them down at night or on the train. Reading them back makes me feel a little dizzy, but grateful for the sketches that unlock past hours and days.

The diary entry from 11th January 2014 – more than a year ago already! – is marked ‘Kochi’ and ‘Cooking Class with Leelu’. There are recipes: Traditional Keralan Fish Curry, Masala Tea, Pumpkin Curry, Aubergine Curry, Thoran and Chapatis. And I wrote down all of the asides as well as cooking instructions. “You are sweating? I am sweating, see. Hot!”

It was hot: eight of us crowded into Mrs Leelu’s kitchen. She was perched on a stool, explaining ‘masala’ (a mix of spices); showing us the powerful Indian wet-dry grinder; letting us taste shredded fresh coconut. She made three curries and let us each roll and cook a chapati until black and blistered. She told us about her son’s wedding, Protestant, no alcohol. One thousand people had been invited; she had ordered 1200 meals to be sure. “If I will be in the kitchen, how will I enjoy?” She learned cooking after her marriage, from listening to her mother instruct the servants. (My diary entry for the Mattancherry Palace tells me that Kerala is a matrilocal society: the wife stays with her family after marriage and the family name and property is passed down through the mother. Which meant that historically, women were more likely to be educated, to learn Sanskrit) Mrs Leelu was jovial and lively, her eyes full of fun. And her cooking efficient and bold. The other English couple in the room raised their eyes at the amount of salt that went into one of the curries and asked questions like, “Ooh I don’t know if you can find coriander powder in England?” and “Can you substitute lemon for tamarind?” (Of course you can. But it would be a different dish. And I am all for substitutions and inventions – after trying the original once. Maybe buy some of the spices before you leave, there’s an idea. I didn’t say any of that. Just wrote everything down for posterity.)

When we sat down to eat, still hot but with a happy anticipation of the feast before us, we each had to reclaim our own chapati, some rounder than others. Mrs Leelu asked us to pick a favourite dish: mine was unquestionably the thoran, a finely grated cabbage dish tempered with fresh coconut and ginger. It is like a refreshing slaw, only cooked for five minutes to take away the raw bite. Warmed up with turmeric and cumin, it is nevertheless a mild side dish to serve alongside a fiery curry. The carrot in the mix adds colour, the mustard seeds a decorative speckle like vanilla in desserts.

Later, back at the hotel, when we had packed – it was our last night as a four before I went north – we shared the quarter-bottle of white wine saved from the plane on arrival. It had been a mostly alcohol-free holiday, more tea and trains and sunburn than anything else. We toasted its success. (Then I was delegated to kill the cockroaches in the bathroom before we went to sleep.)

I would happily do the two weeks in Kerala all over again, to the letter: Wayanad, Alappuzha, Munnar, Kochi. Mrs Leelu’s class was in the latter, in the heart of the old city. It is mostly demonstration, but you get to eat everything at the end. And she is very entertaining.

~~~

Thoran (Keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)

serves 5-6 as a side-dish

Can apparently be made with all kinds of vegetables: carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, unripe plaintain, potato, courgette. So use whatever you have on hand. Adjust cooking time and quantity of water accordingly: more for potatoes, less for courgettes.

100g carrot (one large)

300g cabbage

1 small red onion

15g ginger (piece roughly the size of top joint of thumb)

1 small chili (depending on what kind – I used 2 tiny bird’s eye chilis)

1/2 – 1 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 – 1 tsp cumin

1 tsp salt or to taste

100g (roughly 1 cup) shredded fresh coconut

OR 80g dessicated coconut + 60ml coconut milk

60ml (1/4 cup) water

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp coconut oil

If fresh coconut is unavailable, use dessicated (unsweetened coconut milk) and soak it for 20 minutes in coconut milk to rehydrate it.

Peel carrot, onion and ginger. Using a food processor, finely grate them with the cabbage and chili. Heat the grated mixture, turmeric, cumin salt and coconut in a large saucepan for 5-10 minutes. Taste: it should be nicely warmed through and no longer taste raw. Add extra spices or salt if necessary. In a small saucepan, heat the coconut oil and mustard seeds until they start to pop, then tip onto thoran and mix in. Serve warm as a side. Also nice cold the next day as a salad.

persimmon pain perdu

21 Jan

persimmon halves

There is a persimmon tree in the parc du Buttes-Chaumont. I never noticed it before, never saw the bright orange globes so high up. Until one day they were on the pavement, split and squashed, over-ripe. It looked as if someone had had a food fight.

Normally I can’t stand persimmons when they are too ripe, when they darken and turn to pulp inside. I like to slice them so you can see the star template, so the texture is that of a crisp pear. But then I like my bananas almost green as well.

French toast didn’t used to appeal to me either. Maybe I am just too attached to banana pancakes. Maybe it is the memories of scout camp: huddled under green tents in the drizzle, we fried up white sliced bread to serve with ketchup. Perhaps it is all in the name, in England, “eggy bread”. The actual French call it “pain perdu” or lost bread, with the idea that it has been found and rescued. (The image of persimmons too can change depending on the name you assign: sharon fruit or kaki.)

Then a friend made me her French toast, taking her time, methodically waiting to really crisp and caramelise the edges of the custardy brioche. Then I was inspired to try the recipe in the Tartine book, since we had an abundance of sourdough bread, some of it already going stale. They have you toast the bread, soaked in eggs and milk, in a skillet on the stovetop to form a crust, adding more liquid as you go to saturate it totally, then stick it in the oven to bake through. It was indeed delicious, the underside as brown and crunchy as crème brûlée. But my favourite part of the recipe was the recommendation to squash a ripe persimmon on top. That was absolutely perfect, adding a juicy, delicate sweetness where maple syrup would almost have been overkill.

There are still plenty of kaki in the French markets, so take advantage. Buy a few, even if they are starting to darken and look bruised, to scoop out of their skins and serve on top of your breakfast whether it is pain perdu, pancakes or porridge.

No recipe today, due to lack of oven and a kitchen under renovation. Pick your favourite French toast recipe: after all it is just eggs, milk, a little sugar and bread – preferably stale. Cut doorstop slabs of the bread and soak the slices in your egg mixture in the fridge overnight, if you are lazy like me and do not want to wake up an hour early to do so. Add some lemon or lime zest for an extra kick. Fry with a generous amount of butter on a medium-low heat, take your time, and finish off in the oven while you make coffee, cook some bacon and cut up your persimmon.

dukkah

21 Dec

coriander jar

The recipe has been in my diary since the summer, when I re-read Laurie Colwin’s “More Home Cooking”. Her food is down-to-earth and her stories gently funny; I liked the one on what to feed a jetlagged friend (something salty so they drink lots of water). The image that really stuck with me though was that of her sister (maybe? the book is still in the south of France) caught guiltily eating this spice mix, dukkah, out of the jar with a spoon.

Now eating Nutella by the spoonful, that I understand. But a mix of nuts and seeds, cumin, coriander and cinnamon? Surely that would be too dry, too strong?

Talking with a friend the other day – she is on the kitchen stool with a glass of wine, I am testing the recipe, blending the toasted spices and nuts, stopping and starting around the conversation – we realise that much as ex-smokers tend to be the most vehemently anti-smoking, people that have had issues with eating disorders tend to be largely impatient  with others’ dietary requirements, intolerances, particular preferences. She says she is gluten-free now, last week it was lactose. He only ate half the piece of cheesecake, claimed he was getting love handles. Obviously I know that there are medically diagnosed problems, food allergies. I know that. She knows that. Nonetheless as if we are trying to distance ourselves from our past, our obsessions, we are the most judgemental.

Smell that. I open the lid of the food processor, releasing a toasty cinnamon air. Good right?

But when walls are broken down, when someone admits to suffering, to have suffered from disordered eating, it is amazing how quickly others will respond with me too! Without that kinship, it would be admitting to weakness, to vanity, to a preoccupation with the self in a world of much more tangible problems.

We each dip a finger to taste the crumbly rubble, not quite a powder. Oooh.  We taste it again. It is like earth and fire, full of warmth.

cinnamon, cumin and pepper jars

It isn’t about being thin or pretty but feeling full or empty. From the beginning of university until not so long ago, I struggled with food. Push and pull. I ate my feelings, as everyone does occasionally. It went from once a month to almost every day, when I could count the ‘good days’ (tuna and rye crackers) one hand in that month.

We try it on some sourdough, spread with honey and goat’s cheese and topped with a baker’s pinch of dukkah (all fingers at once, not just finger and thumb). That will be breakfast and snacks for the next two days until the loaf runs out.

And then, slowly, sometime in the last year and a half it faded towards the horizon. It stopped being ‘I am’ this thing, this disorder that defines me, and became ‘I have’ and ‘I used to have’. I can feel its imprint on bad days, a worn pathway, a feeling of too much too full too frantic. Asked to describe it once, I said that when anxious I felt a balloon inflating in my chest and the only way to remove it was to fill myself up until I was a sack of concrete.

Now I remember how to feel physically hungry, not just emotionally empty. My feelings are not always in check – nor should they be – and sometimes it surprises me the forged link of hunger/sadness. Two days ago I finished class in a terribe mood, sure that everyone hated me, inexplicably miserable. Then, wait, I realised, I had been too busy to eat lunch. All I needed to right my self-esteem was a quick sandwich of baguette, cured ham and salad, with a sprinkle of more dukkah. (I ‘borrowed’ some from the jar in my handbag I was giving away as a gift. Sorry Jen!)

Where am I going with this? For one, more people than you would think will own up to those moments in the kitchen at midnight, guiltily nursing that spoon, if only you know how to ask the question. It is a relief to say, me too. Hopefully this does not read as melodramatic or self-centred. I just know that a few years ago I would have loved to know someone with the same experience, someone who made it out the other side. I would have felt less ashamed.

And secondly, this spice mix, dip, topping, whichever, is my favourite thing I have made all year. It is redolent with spices, savoury and sweet, salty. Hot with black pepper but tempered with the hazelnuts and sesame seeds, so that it can be used in generous spoonfuls rather than pinches. Of course, when I googled it I discovered it has been fashionable in the food world for at least a decade now, in all of my favourite blogs: 101 Cookbooks, Smitten Kitchen and now in David Lebovitz’s new book. And more importantly, in Egypt for centuries: street vendors serve cones of dukkah, or duqqa, with bread and olive oil for dipping. I cannot wait to serve it over boiled eggs, potatoes, soups, avocado toast… My flatmate makes home-made fermented-milk yoghurt which is incredible with dukkah and honey. I think Laurie Colwin would approve.

hazelnuts sesame and salt

Dukkah

Friends and family in the near vicinity, you may be getting a jar of this for Christmas. For those of you far away, I won’t risk posting sachets of mysterious powder, so you will have to make your own. This makes a generous quantity, three jam jars full, or many spice jars (save empty ones from the supermarket for your presents). You won’t regret making a big batch, especially if you go to the trouble of buying coriander and cumin seeds, might as well use them. Adjust to taste: add more nuts for a milder flavour, more pepper for more heat. Enjoy on everything.

115g ( 1 cup) hazelnuts

150g (1 cup) sesame seeds

15g (3 tbs) cumin seeds

20g (1/4 cup) coriander seeds

15g (1 1/2 tbs) black peppercorns

15g (1 tbs + 1 tsp) coarse sea salt

12g (2 tbs) ground cinnamon

Toast the nuts / seeds / spices one kind at a time in a dry frying pan. Shake it every now and then to cook evenly. When they smell toasty, tip into food processor and do the next lot. (If you want to skin hazelnuts, tip them still hot into a tea towel and rub firmly to remove skins.) Add the salt and cinnamon, no need to toast, and blend everything to a rubble, not too fine a powder. My food processor does not do very well with the peppercorns so I crush them roughly first with a makeshift mortar and pestle: rolling pin and mug.)

Divide into jars. Eat on everything.

buttering the sky

19 Dec

pain

On my shopping list:

bread flour (white and whole wheat)

brioche flour

rye, spelt

baskets for proofing: “bannetons”

The dough waited overnight, cradled in a colander lined with a tea towel, ready to be turned into this morning’s loaf. 60/40 brioche/wholemeal flour, 80% hydration, salt.

The kitten alarm clock started meowing as soon as it was light, luckily only 8 a.m. in our grey winter. I fed her with cat biscuits, fed the starter with a handful of flour and some warm water, and preheated the oven. For the first time the loaf had a significant roundness to it – it had a high, proud shape, a sharp edge where it had been scarred. When I sliced it open the crust had a real crackle, the crumb a good spring, variegated holes. It just needed butter to be perfect.

I am far from being religious, but making pain au levain makes me feel a kind of Old Testament awe. I made something from just flour and water and air, a living thing. It might as well have been Adam’s rib for all I feel so proud. I made something from scratch. Flour and water and air, these are my everyday gods.

On my kitchen wall:

Slipping

On my shoes,

Boiling water,

Toasting bread,

Buttering the sky:

That should be enough contact

With God in one day

To make anyone

Crazy.

                                       –Hafiz

jen’s magic mushrooms

17 Dec

jens mushrooms

In Lisbon, we learned the art of sharing – the scant prices always tricked us into ordering too much. One main course was largely sufficient for two, especially as we had already eaten the olives, brown bread and queijo fresco brought as a cover charge.

In Madrid, we learned about small bites at the Mercado San Miguel – a cone of jamon iberico from one stall, two stuffed olives from another, a few croquetas, a pinxto with salt cod and caviar and one with octopus.

At home, I have been trying to learn that less is more. Instead of worrying about three courses when friends come over, now I offer soup and baguette and cheese. For dessert, a bowl of tangerines, maybe some sesame shortbread and yoghurt. A few flavours at a time, and really good ingredients.

Last night, we had a vernissage at home. (Which means varnishing day, literally, the day before the exhibition when the artist adds the finishing touches to the hanging pictures and their friends come over to chat and criticise and drink champagne.) I wanted a few snacks, inspired by the Iberian peninsula. There was a simple potato tortilla with coarse salt on top. Three red peppers, roasted whole, peeled and marinated in olive oil. Bread and liver paté. And after eating some incredible cepes at Botin, the ‘oldest restaurant in the world’, these stuffed mushrooms.

This is the perfect party dish for the holidays, since the effect outweighs the effort ten times over. It could have a myriad of additions, herbs, truffle salt, pistachios… but in the spirit of simplicity, the mushrooms are perfect as they are. Since you only need two ingredients, you can buy them on the way to a party and make them on arrival. Good for vegetarians too! I can’t take any of the credit though: they come from Jen, founding member of the Grape Leaf Club and Thanksgiving host extraordinaire.

Jen’s Magic Mushrooms

makes a plateful

500g white mushrooms (champignons de Paris)

150g Boursin cheese with garlic and herbs

black pepper

Snap all the stems out of the mushrooms, keep them for something else. Brush any dirt off the mushroom caps then fill the holes with Boursin. Grind black pepper generously over the top.

Bake for 10 minutes at 200C. Serve warm.

leftovers (08.12.2014)

8 Dec

octopus lisbon

Recent leftovers include:

Too many roast potatoes turned into soup with a whole roasted bulb of garlic and lots of coriander.

Tartines of onion jam, goat’s cheese and caramelised fennel at 5 o’clock in the morning. Perfect midnight feast food.

Thumbprint cookies made of scraps of buttery tart pastry from the salted caramel pecan tart, rolled into balls and covered in coconut. Pressed each ball firmly with a thumb, indent filled with raspberry-tangerine jam. Baked until golden.

Recently reading/writing:

Since Paris seems to be enjoying a second wave of japonisme I am  re-reading the first few chapters of The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

Both David Lebovitz and Tim Hayward in the FT magazine (free registration necessary to read) have been talking about travelling and the fine balance between wanting to find the “undiscovered” away from any other tourists, and of course, needing a guide. Which I thought about when I went to Lisbon last month with a friend: some places live up to the hype, are worth repeating, worth the queue. (The pasteis de Belem really were fantastic, although now I know the Paris version comes a pretty close second.) Some, selfishly, I did not want to spoil by sharing, like the fantastic octopus at Jeronimo.

This weekend I am off to Madrid. I will be packing an Everyman/Cartoville guide: my favouite guidebooks (apart from my own of course!) since they are simple and condensed with fold out maps for each area. This article about Hemingway’s Madrid. And a new sketchbook – I have been playing with watercolour, trying to do more rough sketches to capture the feel of a city, like the lovely Sketchbook from Southern France.

And totally un-related to food, for a diversion from work on a Friday afternoon, I look forward to Ann Friedman’s newsletter in my inbox. Full of links for recent funny, thought-provoking words around the web.

Bonne semaine!

raspberry tangerine jam

5 Dec

raspberry tangerine jam

In Perugia, I lived in an apartment with big windows and cold floors. My flatmates would force slippers onto me when I walked around barefoot in the morning. Then they would make me coffee, and in the evening, spaghetti. Sometimes pasta twice a day. Around this time of year, November December, we might just have roast chestnuts and vino novello for supper.

One of them – I can’t remember which one – used to leave the skin of tangerines, peeled in one long strip, on top of the radiator. So that the house would smell like citrus. Which reminded me of the passage below, from M.F.K. Fisher.

(I have a recipe for raspberry tangerine jam, which is a delightful combination. Perfect with toast or porridge, or in buttery cookies. You should make it on a December afternoon to warm up the house.)

But Fisher tells such a good story, I will leave her the last word. Enjoy. From Serve it Forth:

I discovered little dried sections of tangerine. My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. I can only write how they are prepared.

In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent. If you find the Kiss, the secret section, save it for Al.

Listen to the chambermaid thumping up the pillows, and murmur encouragement to her thick Alsatian tales ofl’intérieure. That is Paris, the interior, Paris or anywhere west of Strasbourg or maybe the Vosges. While she mutters of seduction and French bicyclists who ride more than wheels, tear delicately from the soft pile of sections each velvet string. You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful.

Take yesterday’s paper (when we were in Strasbourg L’Ami du Peuple was best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on top of the radiator. The maid has gone, of course – it might be hard to ignore her belligerent Alsatian glare of astonishment.

After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. You are sorry, but –

On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.

All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension’s chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o’clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.

The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.

– M.F.K. Fisher

Raspberry Tangerine Jam

We often used frozen raspberries in the bakery, especially when they are going to be cooked down to make puree. They still have a lot of flavour. The first time I made this I used the whole peel but because of all the pectin in it, the results were quite stiff. Just use half, put the other half on the radiator.

makes 1 large or 2 small jars

400g frozen raspberries

1 tangerine,  preferably seedless

250g jam sugar

Sterilise your jars. (Since I don’t have a dishwasher, I fill them with boiling water.) Put some spoons in the freezer for testing.

It is a small quantity of jam, so it can be made either on the stove or in a microwave. If you try the latter, keep an eye on it as it sets quickly. Heat the raspberries gently to defrost. Blend half the tangerine peel and all of the pulp (remove seeds first) with a spoonful of the sugar to make a puree.

When the raspberries have softened and started to liquefy, add the tangerine puree and the rest of the sugar. Bring to the boil and let it bubble for about 5 minutes. The bubbles should sound a tone deeper, the mixture more syrupy than before. When you drag the wooden spoon across the bottom, it should take a second for the liquid red sea to come back together. If in doubt, test the consistency on a frozen spoon: when the jam is at room temperature it should hold its shape instead of sliding quickly over the spoon, it should form a slight skin that will wrinkle slightly when you push it. You will see the jam sticking around the edges of the pan and on the wooden spoon too.* Carefully pour into jars, to the brim, close and turn upside down to cool.

*Plagiarising self from last post about jam.

salted caramel pecan tart

1 Dec

autumn leaves, salted caramel pecan tart

That week was a hard week. I fell asleep at odd hours, subsisted mainly on grapefruits and Nutella. Cocooned under the duvet, I was peacefully numb, purposefully avoiding decision, movement.

It was comfortable.

Then, then there was a breeze and an art exhibition and a proper conversation, as we perched on some church steps.

Vulnerability is the origin of all joy, and all pain. To really feel, you have to be stripped raw and open to the elements. Exposed to fear and shame and disgust but also, hopefully, to discovery and light.

Then I bought two chocolates: a liquid caramel and a milk chocolate praline. The flavours were strident, bitter caramel and sweet gianduja (upmarket Nutella).

Then there was a concert. Still a little dazed, I heard the harsh Belgian rock as a lullaby. Only when the next band came on and the African violin started to play did I wake up, properly. It was so alive – an electric guitar and Gambian folk songs, a steady beat.

A determined granny started a simple dance by the stage. Everyone else in the staid theatre got to their feet. Electricity crackled. It was so good it hurt. That violin made tears fall involuntarily, as if I was cutting onions.

When you are asleep, you don’t feel the bad stuff. But you don’t get the good stuff either. You don’t get to really taste, to listen in to music.

Sometimes you have to get out of bed (or take off your hedgehog spikes, whatever your protection might be) and make something happen. Then you win back your five senses.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a high note or a bite of chocolate will bring you back to yourself.

But you have to be awake and open. It hurts. This is how you know you are a person.

~~~

(I found this piece in a forgotten notebook the other day. Maybe it reads a little raw, too emotional? It comes from exactly three years ago. A lot has changed since then. I am a lot happier, though I still make the same mistakes, I still hiberate when faced with hard decisions. I recommend watching Brene Brown for a more scientific and yet funnier look at vulnerability.)

autumn leaves, salted caramel pecan tart 2

So. Salted butter caramel. Something I have made on and off over the years. It has that pushy flavour that brings you down to earth, bitter and sweet and rich. Can be used to fill macarons or plain shortbread cookies. Drizzled on yoghurt, meringues or spread in a thin layer on cake. (If you want to make it into a buttercream, beat cooled caramel with 180g softened butter.) It is hard to resist eating it with a spoon. The recipe does require a sugar thermometer. If you are making it as a macaron filling you will need one anyway for the Italian meringue. (An electronic thermometer/timer can be found at IKEA for only a few euros.)

Once you have mastered the caramel, the tart itself is very easy and incredibly delicious. Inspired by Jacques Genin, Clamato and my local bakery, it is buttery and crumbly, a fancy French take on the pecan pie. The caramel just sticks the toasted pecans to the shortbread base, which has extra butter and a touch of coconut. It is the kind of tart that demands an extra sliver, and another and… I had to make it twice in a week to have it tested and approved by several Frenchies. They were more than satisfied, asking wide-eyed: mais c’est toi qui l’as fait? Mmmm. Silly question!

P.S. I just remembered the other pecan tart recipe on this tart: with a molasses custard base, it is totally different! At least somewhat different. Try them both! I made the molasses version sans pecans the other day, it was glossy and smooth and bitter, just how I like it.

~~~

Salted caramel pecan tart

makes one large tart (28-30cm)

Shortbread pastry:

200g butter, softened

115g caster sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

25g coconut, unsweetened

270g plain flour

generous pinch of salt

Caramel:

200g sugar

80g water

220g cream (single, whipping or creme fleurette)

40g salted butter

To assemble:

250g pecans

Pastry: Cream softened butter and sugar. Add egg and yolk and mix well. (If it separates a little, add a handful of flour.) Add flour, coconut and salt and stir to combine. Wrap in clingfilm, patting dough into a flat disc, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes. (Freeze for 10 minutes if in a rush.)

Caramel: Use a large, heavy bottomed saucepan, preferably stainless steel so you can better see the colour of the caramel. A dark pan will made it more difficult. On a medium heat, cook sugar and water Do not stir. You can rotate the pan if necessary, if caramelising on one side only – but be careful with hot sugar!   Cook the sugar until it is a nice brown, smelling like caramel but not burnt. Tilt the pan a little to see the colour on the thinnest part – it will always look darker when it is thick.

Take the pan off the heat and throw in the  butter. Stand back, it will sizzle a little but will stop the cooking process so the caramel doesn’t burn. Then pour in the cream, carefully, for it will bubble up. Bring back to the heat and cook to 108C. (It may separate initially but will come back together again.) Have a large bowl of cold water ready: dip the bottom of the saucepan into it to cool it quickly. Then tip caramel into a bowl. If you are going to use it later, clingfilm the surface and put in the fridge.

To assemble: Grease a large tart tin – 28 to 30cm. On a floured surface, roll out the pastry a few centimetres wider than the tin. It is quite a soft dough: be gentle and try not to use too much flour. It should be quite thick – 5mm or so. Ease into tin, trim edges and prick base with a fork. Chill fo 30 minutes or freeze for 10. (If there is leftover pastry, cut into shapes, brush with leftover egg white, sprinkle with coconut, or cinnamon sugar, and bake as cookies.)

Preheat oven to 175C. As you do, spread pecans on a tray and toast them in the oven. But don’t forget them! About 10 minutes or until they smell toasted. Then line tart shell with paper and baking beans, and bake tart for 20 minutes. Remove paper and beans and carry on baking until golden-brown: another 15-20 minutes. It won’t be baked again, so it should be nice and crisp. When done, tip pecans into tart shell. Spoon or drizzle the caramel all over. If the caramel is a bit solid, put the tart back in the oven for 2-3 minutes until it melts and evens out. Allow to cool for an hour or two to set.

Keeps for 2-3 days in a tin.

for starters

28 Nov

starter

It doesn’t look like much. A pot of flour and water. But soon it will be alive! (Insert evil laugh.) I’m making my own sourdough starter… watch this space.

Actually, in the meantime, since it takes a while to grow a sourdough baby, have a look at the photos over on The Perfect Loaf.

black sesame shortbread

24 Nov

black sesame shortbread

Japan is all the rage in Paris at the moment: there is an extensive Hokusai exhibit at the Grand Palais, well worth visiting; a detailed look at the hand-drawn layouts for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films at the Musée d’Art Ludique; and Le Japon au fil des saisons at the Musée Cernuschi. The oldest department store in Paris, Le Bon Marché, is celebrating Japan too.

For our most recent Grape Leaf Club, we ate chirashi bowls with salmon, mackerel and octopus while watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I’d seen the film before but loved it again – 85 year old sushi chef Jiro and his sincere perfectionism, his hard-working sons and apprentices. The jolly restaurant critic who admits to being slightly intimidated to eat there. The apprentice that cries when he finally gets the omelette right.

One of the lines in the Hokusai show echoed Jiro’s determined philosophy – both wanted to keep practising their craft their whole life long, believing there is more to learn even in your eighties.

It all makes me nostalgic for working in the Japanese bakery. I loved the genmaicha tea in the morning, making yuzu Christmas logs, starting with ohayo gozaimasu and finishing with otsukaresama desu! as we left. (“You are honorably tired” is a very satisfying compliment after a long day’s work.)

And so more Japanese flavours have been creeping into my cooking. There is a jar of pickled ginger by the stove, Japanese rice in the cupboard. I have an elegant wooden box that measures exactly enough rice for two people.

I love anything with black sesame – kuro goma –  the earthy, deep flavour a perfect contrast for something rich and creamy. I made the sesame shortbread with matcha-coconut pannacottafor our Jiro evening. It is buttery and crumbly with a slight edge from the bitter seeds.

The second time I made it for a quick dinner at home. It only needs a bowl and a spoon and a tin. We ate the shortbread with yoghurt and bitter caramel sauce. To turn natural yoghurt into something more worthy of a dessert, leave it to drain in a sieve lined with paper towels for half an hour. It becomes thicker, creamier and more tart. Like homemade Greek yoghurt. Drizzle with honey, maple syrup or caramel. Simple and delicious.

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Black sesame paste and seeds can be found at Japanese or Asian supemarkets. In Paris, the rue St Anne, near metro Pyramides, has the highest concentration of Japanese shops, noodle bars and bakeries.  Or try using tahini.

Miyazaki exhibit, Paris

Black sesame shortbread

adapted from Seasonal Secrets

125g salted butter

50g caster sugar

2 tsp sesame paste

125g plain flour

50g rice flour

2 tsp black sesame seeds

Cream butter and sugar until soft. Add sesame paste and mix to combine well. Add flours and seeds. Keep mixing until the dough starts to form clumps. It can be a bit crumbly, but not powdery. If overworked, it will be too chewy rather than light.

Grease an 18cm round tin. Press the mixture firmly into it. Refrigerate shortbread while preheating oven to 175C. Bake for 15 minutes, until it comes away from the sides and is just golden around the edges.

Cool, slice into thin wedges.

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