apple and cheese soufflés, and cheat’s ratatouille

10 Mar

apple cheese souffles 1

There is a magnificent sunset outside, swathes of pink on a clear, blue sky. From the bridge at the end of my road, it is criss-crossed with black wires hung over the train lines. I like the contrast. Walking back home, along a route I never take, I look up and see a classic silhouette behind a skyscraper, the dome and tower of the Sacré-Coeur. Normally I never go that way, normally I go inwards to the centre of Paris’ clock-face. But Paris extra-muros is being steadily smartened and I had been to visit the new Ciné-Cité on the outskirts, pristine and echoing still. I shouldn’t be surprised that there is more to discover, that a different road will yield such different results. The day before a long run took me past a British telephone box stranded in the Paris suburbs, fully functional with a dial tone and everything. It is a tiny city sometimes, and sometimes even after three and a half years I don’t know it at all.

Talk about leaving my comfort zone in increments. I curl up on the sofa with a pile of cookbooks the afternoon of the dinner party with the will to make something new… And what really leaps out out at me are the soufflés. The way I open a menu and instantly know I must have that  or I will be disappointed. But I already wrote about soufflés three posts ago. And I will make them with goat’s cheese, which has been so over-done the Guardian has been panicking about a desperate shortage of the stuff. What’s more, the recipe comes from my mother’s cookbook.

apple cheese souffles 3

What can I say? Everyone has food phases, cravings, repetitive habits – see also, the Croutons for Breakfast period circa 1998 – and though they may be a la mode, I can’t resist making more soufflés. Their craggy puff, their splendour as they arrive at the table – and above all, their relative ease. Granted, I can only make four at a time because of my little oven, but I only need ingredients lying around the kitchen – cheese, milk, butter, eggs and in this case, an apple – and a good whisk. As simple as an omelette, but more spectacular.

A couple of hours before dinner, I fried an apple in butter, then made a simple béchamel sauce. When it was thick and creamy, I added egg yolks, goat’s cheese and apple. That was it. The egg whites waited on one side for the last minute.

cheat's ratatouille 2

Meanwhile, the oven did all the work for the laziest (best) ratatouille I have ever tried. One large aubergine, one courgette and one red pepper were roasted whole until blackened and collapsing in on themselves. (The aubergine gave up the ghost first, the courgette was made of tougher stuff.) Once baked soft, they need all of ten seconds to chop roughly – can be done with kitchen scissors, even. All I had to do was gently saute a clove or two of garlic in some olive oil, add a tomato and done. Stir them all together, season. Best of all, no squeaky aubergine: too often ratatouille has cubes of polystyrene eggplant swimming in watery sauce because it takes so long to cook each vegetable to the proper consistency. This oven-roasted version was silky, meltingly tender and took less effort than reading this paragraph.

So after half an hour’s actual work, I was done. Wash up, go back to the sofa for more tea. Pretend to be the consummate hostess when my guests arrive. When they do, when they begin to look hungry despite the crisps and crackers, all that needs doing is preheating the oven, whisking the egg whites and gently folding in the rich béchamel. The soufflés were over enthusiastic, bursting from their dishes. Even better. Brown around the edges, fluffy in the middle, with the subtle tang of apple balancing the goat’s cheese: they were comforting and ever-so-slightly out of the ordinary. Just right for a Wednesday.

cheat's ratatouille 1

Apple and cheese soufflés

from Victoria O’Neill’s Seasonal Secrets –  she suggests using blue cheese (in which case omit the salt). Her version is also twice baked, which means you bake them, let them cool for 20 minutes then turn them out of the ramekins onto a baking tray and reheat for 10 minutes when needed. This reduces last minute preparation, and leads to a slightly more crisp texture – but I like the pomp of a freshly baked soufflé. Serve with salad and toasted walnuts for a starter, or with ratatouille, some steamed potatoes and bread for a filling main course.

makes 8 starter size or 4 main course size

100g butter, divided into 30/70g

1 large apple (160g)

50g plain flour

300ml milk

100g cheese – mild goat’s cheese or strong blue, according to taste

(3/4 tsp salt – omit if using blue cheese!)

pepper

4 eggs, separated into yolks and whites

You will need some ramekins or little straight-sided dishes so that the soufflés rise properly. For the small, starter size they should be about 8cm across, for the larger 11-12cm.

Melt 30g butter in a small saucepan; peel and finely chop the apple. Cook the apple in butter, covered, for 5 minutes or until soft and golden. Tip into a bowl. In the same saucepan, melt the rest of the butter. Using a pastry brush, thoroughly coat the inside of your ramekins with butter. Dust them with a little flour, rolling them around so the flour covers the sides and bottom. Set aside.

Add the flour to the melted butter and stir well to make a roux. Let it cook for a minute or two until it smells slightly nutty, so that the flour loses its raw taste. Off the heat, add the milk a little at a time, whisking in between to remove lumps. Return to the heat and cook until thick and creamy and just starts to bubble. Decant into the bowl with the apples. Crumble in the cheese, add salt (if using) and pepper and finally the egg yolks. Stir. Clingfilm the surface so it doesn’t form a skin. Have the egg whites in a separate, large, clean bowl – also with clingfilm over it to stop any contamination. Whites whisk best at room temperature.

(All of the above can be prepared in advance. If it is more than a couple of hours beforehand, refrigerate the béchamel and whites and bring to room temperature before using. Alternatively, bake the soufflés straightaway as below. Then when they have cooled – 20 minutes or so – ease them out of their ramekins with a palette knife and turn onto a baking tray. Reheat when needed.)

Preheat the oven to 200C and whisk the whites to stiff peaks. Stir a quarter into the béchamel sauce to lighten it, then tip it all into the whites and fold together, careful not to lose the air. Fill ramekins to the brim, smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help them rise up evenly. Turn the oven down to 180C and bake for 25 minutes, until they have puffed up, turned golden-brown and feel reasonably firm to the touch.

Serve immediately.

apple cheese souffles 2

Cheat’s Ratatouille

serves 4 as a side dish

1 large aubergine

1 large red pepper

1 large or 2 small courgettes

1 large or 2 small tomatoes

2 cloves garlic

2 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

Heat oven to 250C. Line a baking tray with foil. Stab the aubergine and pepper several times with a fork. If using a large courgette, slice in half, otherwise leave everything whole. Bake for 20 minutes or so until the vegetables have collapsed and, for the pepper, blackened around the edges. Remove any vegetables that cook quicker – my courgette needed an extra ten minutes to really soften. Meanwhile, peel and smash the garlic cloves with the back of a knife; cook in the olive oil until soft but not brown. Roughly chop the tomato and sauté for a couple of minutes until it breaks down. Chop the roasted vegetables with knife or kitchen scissors (remove stalk and seeds from pepper) and pour away any liquid that seeps out. Add to tomato, garlic, and heat through. Season with plenty of salt and pepper. Serve.

book jenga

3 Mar

books

Yesterday a pile of books in my bedroom threatened to engulf me. There aren’t any shelves, only artfully arranged stacks. And the one I wanted was at the bottom.

The cookbooks in the kitchen do not fare much better. They have to share space with our ever-expanding tea collection (black, green, white, cranberry, chai, cardamom, almond) that also threatens an avalanche when one item is removed.

And somehow I seem to forget to use them. Or I open them only at well-loved recipes, creased pages. Some of their spines have never been cracked. For the last month, I have been stuck in a rut, making the same two cakes (upside-pomegranate and orange with coconut); soup, bread and Rachel’s peperonata, which never gets old. (Today it is going in a savoury tart and I cannot wait for lunch.)

books 2

Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries have been demoted to bedtime reading, or worse, laptop stand. Not good enough. The seasons are changing, on the cusp, and the markets have switched their produce from one week to the next. Like in Japan, where the 1st September means off with the air-conditioning, here the first weekend of March means I can’t find any more pomegranates, but artichokes are in abundance. So I am getting out of my rut and opening my books.

If I go rescue the Kitchen Diaries from my bed, let’s see… For the beginning of March, Nigel offers lamb shanks, and passion-fruit creams, like a ray of sunshine. (In fact, the recipe for the latter is remarkably similar to my rosemary creams.) This month, I am going to try at least one new recipe per week, each from a different book. Must include artichokes, since I’ve always avoided preparing them. And I think I know which book they require, The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina …

spring supper

2 Mar

spring, cherry blossoms

Two days in bed with a bad cold and my brain went to mush. The extremely nice flatmate brought me tisanes and yoghurt and pretended to understand my French. (“No, he wasn’t telling the truth, he was telling candles. Wait, what?”) Eventually she judged me well enough for a short walk into the outside world. We went to the canal, as always, over the cobbles. The sky wasn’t quite blue, a typical Paris grey with a bright edge to it.

A very few cherry blossoms decorated some bare black branches. Slim daffodils surrounded the trees down the avenue. “It’s the first of March! Pinch and a punch!” I demonstrated, twice, to teach her the English phrase. We squeezed into the busy Ten Belles for cappuccinos with foam hearts, and a cookie. Bought a bag of fresh-ground Belleville Brulerie coffee for home, to go in our matching Moka pots. (Tasting notes: chocolate and forest fruits.) Then we walked and talked and walked some more.

Once home again, to celebrate my new ability to stand upright, I made a batch of the best cookies in the world. (Though Ten Belles’ version was pretty damn good: thin, crisp and chocolaty.) The recipe that uses nearly 600g dark chocolate, enough to fill a chopping board and spill over the edges.

spring, chocolate chip cookie

Three things I have learned since I first wrote about them: 1) to soften the butter, sandwich it between grease-proof paper and beat it with a rolling pin, v. satisfying; 2) to stop brown sugar from drying into a hard clump, peel a lemon with a vegetable peeler and stick a strip or two in the bag; 3) my oven will only bake 4 cookies at once (restraint) but I am not immune to eating frozen, raw cookie dough (total absence of self-discipline). Now there are thirty-something cookie balls in the freezer for me and the chocolate-obsessed flatmate, with control-freak cooking instructions posted on the door.

~~

For the perfect spring supper then: start with an afternoon of fresh air. Take frequent gulps. Then go home to a warm apartment. Have a friend or two come over with a fresh baguette and some Tomme de Savoie cheese. Slice a crisp apple. Alternate bites of bread, cheese and apple. Throw together a slapdash version of Ottolenghi’s pea and yoghurt pasta, miraculously made of items in cupboard and freezer. Boil some water, salt it. Have your friend or flatmate chop some almonds while you blend frozen peas, yoghurt, olive oil and garlic. Toast the almonds with more olive oil and chili flakes. Cook spaghetti. (Keep sneaking bread, cheese, apple.)

spring, ottolenghi pea and yoghurt pasta

Toss everything together: pasta, peas, yoghurt sauce, mint, spicy oil and nuts and serve with some mâche (“lamb’s lettuce,” a nutty soft salad leaf) and a squeeze of lemon. Grate any cheese you haven’t eaten on top. Preheat the oven while you eat and admire the bright green meal. It has all the comfort of winter carbohydrates without the heft, a creamy sauce that isn’t rich, and a serving of spring-y vegetables without tasting smugly virtuous. The flavours were so clear and well-rounded that the cheese was almost superfluous. (I wouldn’t even add bacon, which normally improves everything.) It is the kind of vegetarian food where you forget there is a meat alternative, the reason Ottolenghi was such a success in his New Vegetarian column.

When you have scraped your plates, bake a ball of cookie dough each for exactly 17 minutes. By which time, your appetite will be just about piqued again. And a warm cookie on a paper napkin will be the right way to finish the meal. (Really it is a disc of melted chocolate with a thin cookie shell as a disguise.)

Be happy you can taste fresh air and pasta and cookies again, and look forward to the day when you can have exactly the same supper but outside, legs dangling over the canal.

spring, obsessive cookie instructions

Ottolenghi’s pea and yoghurt pasta

makes enough for 2 hungry people or very 3 polite ones

The original version calls for fresh garlic, pinenuts, basil and feta, none of which I had in the house. Orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) collects the sauce better, but spaghetti is no less delicious. The beauty of this recipe is that it adapts well to whatever you have in your cupboards or freezer. I suggest freezing a bunch of mint for later use, for though it doesn’t look as pretty when defrosted it is useful in a hunger-emergency.

250g frozen peas (divided into 50g/200g)

250g plain natural yoghurt

2 tsp garlic-ginger paste

75ml olive oil (divided into 45ml/30ml)

30g whole almonds

scant 1 tsp chili flakes

250g spaghetti, or favourite pasta

handful mint leaves, roughly torn

salt and pepper

50g-100g mild cheese, grated (Tomme de Savoie)

half a lemon

(optional: several handfuls mâche, or lamb’s lettuce)

Put a large saucepan of water on to boil. (Or boil kettle, faster.) Blend 50g peas with yoghurt, garlic paste and 45ml olive oil until smooth. Tip into large serving bowl. Generously salt boiling water and add pasta. Heat remaining 30ml olive oil with chili flakes in a small frying pan. Roughly chop almonds and toast in the oil until golden-brown. Remove from heat. When pasta is nearly ready, add remaining frozen peas for a minute or two. Drain well. Toss half of pasta in sauce to coat well, then mix in the rest as well as the mint. Salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle chili-oil and almonds over the top. Serve with grated cheese and a squeeze of lemon, a handful of mâche on the side of each plate.

gontran cherrier’s pain au cidre

11 Feb

gontran pain au cidre

By all rights, I did not deserve to get such a perfect loaf. I forgot it three times between rising and baking. I used plain flour – I think – from an unlabelled canister, and beer instead of cider. Which I forgot to measure, just tipped it most of it in. The yeast had been in the cupboard since I don’t know when.

But I was home after a while away and in the way of a territorial cat, I wanted to take back my kitchen. Most of the ingredients were there, flour and honey and beer, so that I could start kneading in my pyjamas. Once I had rescued the sloppy dough (my fault) with extra flour, and had to punch down the bread twice and reknead because it had been spreading, steathily, while I went back to bed with a book, once I remembered that it was in the oven only because the beep awoke me from a Saturday morning stupor… after that, my expectations were low.

It was a nice round loaf, full and plump. The crust was browned properly, while the crumb was surprisingly soft, white and fluffy. There was a slight tang from the beer that gave an edge like good sourdough but with a lighter texture. With butter and last summer’s apricot jam it was heaven.

The next time I made it with cider it was even better. It may become my go-to bread recipe, that I can tweak and change, add a quarter wholemeal flour or seeds, nuts, dried fruit, depending on my mood. I can confirm that a double quantity suits  this insane recipe forgarlic party bread from Smitten Kitchen extremely well. Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to work for Gontran Cherrier for a couple of months at the beginning of my apprenticeship, and his breads are just incredible. Seedy baguettes, squid ink buns, fig loaves. The most original in Paris, certainly. This recipe is from his book, Gontran fait son pain. I am looking forward to making the cider version into cheese and apple sandwiches, or even homemade cinnamon toast, if I can resist eating it all fresh, on the first day.

Which reminds me: toast is the new cupcakes, accordingly to a heartwarming article that surprised me by switching subjects halfway. No sarcasm, do read it.

(If you have leftover cider, consider making spiced mulled cider and adding icecream, optional. If you have no patience, try a quick-bread recipe with much the same ingredients: my beer and honey bread. It has a cakey crumb more like soft soda bread, or a scone, but it is still delicious, and instant.)

gontran pain au cidre 2

Gontran’s Pain au Cidre

makes one small loaf

250g strong white flour

180ml cider

7g instant dried yeast (normally one packet)

1 tbs runny honey

1/2 tsp salt

Mix the yeast with 30ml or 2tbs tepid water, at body temperature. Leave for five minutes. Stir all the ingredients together including the yeast and knead until it comes together into a smooth dough, another five minutes. (Obviously this is possible and faster with an electric mixer and a dough hook.) Lightly oil the bowl and place the ball of dough in it. Sprinkle with a little flour, cover with a teatowel and leave to rise, 45 minutes to an hour. (On a cold day, I like to heat a bowl of water in the microwave for 2 minutes, then put the dough for a warm, humid environment.) It should have roughly doubled in size, be nice and puffy.

Knock some of the air out of the dough, knead once or twice and shape into a ball. Place on a piece of baking paper and cover again. Leave for an hour. Preheat the oven to 200C with two baking trays already inside it, one flat, one with sides. Boil the kettle. With a sharp knife, slash the ball of dough a couple of times, parallel lines about 1cm deep. Slide the dough onto the preheated, flat baking sheet. Pour some of the hot water into the other tray and have it on a lower rack. The steam will help the bread rise and form a nice crust.

Bake for 30 minutes until brown. Turn the loaf over and knock it, it should make a hollow thump. Allow to sit for 15 minutes before cutting.

rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

8 Feb

salmon salad 3

Travelling is best when you can put on someone else’s life for the weekend, see a city through a local’s eyes. Visiting yet another cousin, I was happy to bypass Parliament House and go straight to the farmer’s market early Saturday morning instead. I tagged along to a yoga class and ran a race with her in the nearby mountains. I liked her version of the green city that involved a lot of walking, with breaks for vegan chocolate chip cookies in a bar decorated with skulls and cacti. I liked that it was small enough that we bumped into her friends everywhere we went, to the extent that one of them joked he had been paid to make her seem popular. I liked that the woman in the Chinese supermarket knew and joked with her when we bought lychees and coconut milk.

Maybe it was all of the outdoors that made me hungry, the scent of gum trees and crackle of leaves underfoot, but I especially liked the supper we cooked together, better than any restaurant. It was her weekly standby, one she is happy to eat again and again, changing a few ingredients but keeping the basics: salmon marinated in fish sauce, pan-fried to give it a crisp brown edge; a bowl of greens, cucumber and lettuce and onion; the unexpected addition of lychees, canned were fine; and a lime-chili-fish sauce dressing. It was fresh, salty, tangy with plenty of crunch and bite from the chili. The generous handfuls of herbs and that addictive dressing made it totally addictive. I made it twice more in the next ten days, not always giving Rebecca the full credit! So here is her official acknowledgement; this will go down in my cavallo di battiglia folder to be made over and over.

~~~

For an easy dessert along the same theme, mix equal quantities of leftover lychee juice and coconut milk to make a quick and unusual granita: pour into a shallow metal dish and freeze for 3-4 hours, stirring every 30 minutes to break up the crystals. Serve plain or with fresh mango.

~~~

Rebecca’s salmon and lychee salad

Originally adapted from Bill Granger

Feeds 2-3 people, depending on appetite

2 salmon steaks

3 tbs fish sauce

1 tbs brown sugar

1 bag mixed leaves

1 cucumber

1 red onion

½ bunch coriander

½ bunch basil

1 tin lychees

Dressing:

1 small red chili

Juice of 2 limes

1 ½ tbs fish sauce

2 tsp brown sugar

Marinate salmon in fish sauce and sugar. Meanwhile slice the red onion as finely as possible, cut the cucumber into rounds, tear up the herbs, tip it all into a large salad bowl with the leaves. Drain lychees, reserve the juice and add the fruit to the salad. Cut up the chili (remove the seeds if you don’t like it too hot) and mix with lime juice, fish sauce, 1 tbs of the lychee juice. Taste and adjust accordingly, so it makes a nice balance between sweet, sharp, salty and hot. Pan fry the salmon until crisp around the edges, breaking it up into chunks in the pan as it cooks. Tip onto salad and pour over the dressing. Toss the salad, taste again and add more salt-sweet-sour if necessary.

blue cheese and pecan scrolls

29 Jan

pecan snail scones

Scones that come ready rolled up with extra butter, melting cheese and crunchy, toasty pecans. All in one bite. Genius. Like a savoury snail bun. When there is no bread in the house, when there is a boring soup or an overly virtuous salad that needs livening up, these scrolls can be made in 20 minutes flat. Use any odds and ends of cheese in the fridge: blue cheese, a mustardy cheddar, gruyere. Add chopped herbs, thyme or basil, swap the pecans for walnuts or almonds. Called scrolls after the oversized Australian buns these are manageable, moreish, marvellous… We had them with Swedish Pea Soup as per our Christmas Eve tradition (in our totally un-Swedish family), spicy soup and miniature cheese scones.

~~~

Blue cheese pecan scrolls

Makes 9 regular or 18 mini – recipe adapted from Belinda Jefferey

300g self-raising flour

½ tsp salt

1 tsp caster sugar

70g butter, cold

180g milk

Filling:

70g butter, softened

100g blue cheese or other strong cheese

100g pecans, roughly chopped

1 egg for eggwash

Preheat oven to 170C. Cube the cold butter and rub into the flour, salt and sugar, to the consistency of breadcrumbs, with lumps no larger than peas. Add the milk and stir together to form a dough. (Add an extra tablespoon of milk if necessary.) Knead once or twice to bring together. Roll out onto a floury surface to about 20x40cm. Whiz the soft butter and cheese in a food processor. Spread over the cheese mixture and sprinkle pecans, leaving a couple of centimetres bare on long side; brush the bare strip with a little water. Roll up the dough from the other long side and press gently to seal. Slice into 9 or 18 depending on size wanted. Brush them with a little egg and bake for 12-15 minutes until nice and golden brown. Serve warm.

(Can be frozen, sliced, before baking – just bake them for an extra couple of minutes.)

blueberry, chocolate and coconut soufflés

23 Jan

souffle 3

(The day I remembered I loved Paris, for future reference when the city seems cold and shrill once again.)

Woken by the sun and the commotion of traffic, earlier than a holiday, already three hours later than my workday, I pulled on a blue dress to walk to the corner bakery for breakfast. On the way back I snapped off the point of the baguette to test; at home I knocked over the clothes rack and woke you. We had our croissants dipped in coffee and apricots plump with juice.

Late as ever we caught the metro to the Opera Garnier, to be tourists for the morning. The guide asked the children in our tour group who might have designed the palatial structure: not a trick question. Charles Garnier was not long left the Beaux Arts, winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome when he was asked to design a new opera house for Napoleon III. A rainbow of marble, intricate Italian mosaics and real gold leaf plastered everywhere lead into the main auditorium where we tipped our heads back to admire the scandalously modern Chagall ceiling, seven tonne chandelier and ring of soft globe lights, Garnier’s “pearl necklace.” We laughed to hear that the best seats had been designed to be seen, not to see the stage. On the roof there are beehives (honey sold at Fauchon down the street), while underneath in the reservoir that served for fire safety as well as acoustics, firemen fish for carp. We looked out over the main avenue, marvelled at the sheer scale and detail of the building. I learned things, for even after three years living here my list of sights is still unfinished. We worked up an appetite for our next eating, a short walk away.

On the menu were soufflés, savoury and sweet. An unassuming restaurant behind the fancy hotels that flank the Tuileries that offers a lunchtime menu of soufflé and green salad followed by soufflé and coffee. Brought with due pomp and circumstance, they did not risk falling; they were very stable but still light and airy inside. Rich with cheese and egg, really just an omelette dolled up for the opera in a hoop skirt, they are extremely satisfying to eat. Their colours decorated the plain dining room: craggy mountain green for spinach and goat’s cheese, tutu pink for raspberry. Chocolate has its own sauceboat. The Grand Marnier comes with a whole bottle to souse as liberally as you wish. Though some of the flavours veered on artificial (peach and apricot was too much like perfumed soap for me) overall the airy creatures were delicious, they were fun.

Blinking at the glare from the sun, we crossed the Tuileries for some lèche-vitrine in St-Germain. Literally “window-licking”, but we were too full even for Pierre Herme macarons. You suggested we see the Chagall expo in the Luxembourg gardens, inspired by the ceiling, a pathway through exile, love and grief all in primary colours. We had time for a swim, the cool water open to the air. You spotted the twins, a pair of identical seventy-year-old sisters in matching cap and costume (later, the same trousers and cardigans) that we had seen at a different Parisian pool years before.

Enough time to traipse home, less sticky and hot, to change for the opera. We were happily over-dressed for an under-done building – it wasn’t the morning’s gilt edifice but the rather more intimate Bouffes du Nord, discovered by Peter Brook in the 70s and left in its charmingly dilapidated state. The paint peels off the rusty-red walls, the front row is directly on the stage. Props comprised only some upright bamboo poles, to serve as palace and jungle and sword.  The whole surroundings left space for the ethereal music, The Magic Flute, sung in German, enough to give you chills; and the quick banter, mostly in French. It was short, an hour and a half of suspended time, breath held. Afterwards it took us a while to shake off the wonder, despite the prosaic metro ride home. You bought some mint from the Indian shop down the road; we sat on the balcony just big enough for two and ate salad. At 11pm, the traffic was still buzzing, the neon-clashing lights of the internet shop below still lit. We gazed at the tree above, talked about nothing and finally went to bed.

souffle 1

Tours at the Opera Garnier (in English at 11.30am and 2.30pm, Wed/Sat/Sun or every day in holidays and July/August)

Lunch at Le Soufflé, (€26 menu, best to book, tel: +33 142602719)

Swim at Piscine Georges Hermant (outdoor pool only in summer)

Opera, theatre, concerts at Les Bouffes du Nord

…and if we hadn’t been so tired, it would have been supper at the best (vegetarian) Indian in Paris, Krishna Bhavan.

~~

Since then, I thought soufflés a little intimidating to make at home, especially in my small oven. Rowley Leigh rescued me with his detailed and clear instructions that took up more of his column than usual. His soufflé Vendôme – a cheese one with a poached egg in the middle that miraculously stays runny – with tomato sauce is just right, rich and fluffy with the contrasting tang of tomato. Again for emphasis: it has a poached egg suspended in a cloud of cheese. Wondrous. So good in fact that I will do it no justice by paraphrasing, so here is the link: Rowley Leigh’s Soufflé Vendôme. He makes six starters, but for a main course you can make the same amount of mixture, only three poached eggs and bake in larger dishes (10cm).

Here is a dessert instead, one that worked first time and would be infinitely adaptable. It has a fruit base, with little pockets of melted chocolate and coconut for texture, and it rose like a dream. The blueberries did turn the egg whites an alarming shade of grey-blue but were delicious nonetheless. You can use frozen fruit since it is then cooked down into a jammy mixture, to recreate the summer, until it is time for dresses and pools again.

souffle 2

Blueberry,chocolate and coconut soufflés

From Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 2013

Makes 6 – Works with cherries, raspberries or other soft fruit. Try to find shredded coconut rather than desiccated, it is chunkier and juicier.

Cocoa + soft butter for moulds

200g (frozen) blueberries

110g caster sugar, divided in half

15g cornflour

150g egg whites (5 eggs)

60g dark chocolate (70%)

40g shredded coconut + extra for sprinkling

Grease six small ramekins (or oven-proof coffee cups with straight sides) with the soft butter. Then tip in a teaspoon of cocoa and roll ramekin around until the sides are totally coated. Tip excess into next ramekin, repeat. Refrigerate.

Defrost blueberries and blend them roughly, leaving a few chunky bits. In a small saucepan, heat puree with half the caster sugar (55g) until it dissolves. Pour a little into a small bowl with the cornflour and mix well to remove lumps. Tip it back into the saucepan with the rest and simmer, stirring every now and then, for 10 minutes or so until thick like jam. Let cool.

Measure out the egg whites and remaining 55g caster in separate bowls. Chop the chocolate finely, weigh the coconut. Stop at this point, if you are not ready to eat dessert. Egg whites whip better at room temperature anyway. (Alternatively, make up the soufflés and refrigerate for 1 hour before baking.)

While serving the main course, heat the oven to 190C. When main course is over, boil the kettle. Then beat the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the sugar gradually as it becomes opaque. Stir a spoonful of whites into the blueberries. Carefully fold everything together without losing the volume. Spoon into the six ramekins and smooth the tops. Run a knife around the edge to help it rise. Sprinkle a little coconut on each. Place in a deep baking tray or roasting tin and fill it with the boiling water, halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 11-12 minutes. The soufflés should have browned and risen a couple of centimetres and feel firm to touch. Insert a skewer to check: it should have a bit of melted chocolate on it but not drippy mixture. Place each ramekin on a small plate and serve immediately.

lemon and lime melting moments

10 Dec

Image

At a birthday party for a little cousin, there was a pink number 4 cake. It was neat and simple, decorated with marshmallow flowers and hundreds and thousands. (Just cut the marshmallows into thin rounds and press into sprinkles or coloured sugar; arrange petals into a flower and place a smartie in the middle.) It brought back childhood memories of poring over this one birthday cake book, months before the day itself, to pick that year’s special cake. It had all the numbers, and the patterns needed to cut them out of a square or round without wasting cake, it had fairy castles and cowboy shootouts. It has a shark with long eyelashes cut out of liquorice. It had the ultimate in kitsch, a swimming pool cake decorated with blue jelly, tiny figurines splashing up and down. Any Australian child will recognise it: the Women’s Weekly birthday cake book. My brother and I grew up with it; my mother had brought it over to England. We looked and looked, still often chose the old favourite: a train cake with multiple sponge cake carriages, rainbow colours and an enormous amount of sweets.

I remembered that their biscuit book too was always on the recipe book stand, never filed away on the shelf. The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits. The pages fell open at Anzac biscuits (crisp, golden rounds made with oats and coconut) and Weekenders (biscuits with raisins, covered in crushed cornflakes) which sound weird but are very moreish. Inspired to look through it again years later, I found an old extravagance: Melting Moments. They are very rich, buttery shortbreads, akin to Viennese Whirls, sandwiched with lemon cream. Though they look a little like macarons, they are simpler to make and better to eat. The shortbread crumbles, gives way beneath your teeth. The citrus just barely cuts the richness; they are pure indulgence. It is impossible not to chase the crumbs left on the plate with a forefinger, to enjoy every last scrap.

There are other recipes – Dan Lepard’s version with passion-fruit and whipped cream looks delicious – and at one point I was tempted by the basil plant on the balcony to modernise the biscuits, give them the macaron treatment, but I’m glad I tried the original version first. The Beautiful Biscuits book is clear and simple, sparse with instructions but heavy on pictures. Actually, I lie, I used lime juice instead of lemon because there was a half in the fridge. Still, they taste like my memories, pretty damn good.

~~~

Lemon and lime melting moments

Just barely adapted from the Women’s Weekly Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits

Makes 25-30

250g unsalted butter, softened

55g icing sugar

225g plain flour

60g cornflour

1/4 tsp salt

Zest of 1 lemon + 1 lime

Filling:

60g butter, softened

75g icing sugar

1 tbs lime juice (about ½ lime)

Zest of 1 lemon or lime

Heat oven to 160C. Cream butter and sugar until soft and fluffy. Sieve in the flour and cornflour, add salt and zests, and mix well. Dollop a teaspoonful at a time, about the size of a large cherry, onto baking trays lined with paper, well-spaced apart. The mixture should make 50-60 small biscuits. Dip a fork in flour and gently flatten the blobs. Bake for 10-12 minutes until just turning golden brown around the edges, still pale on top. (You may need to rotate the trays halfway so they bake evenly.) Let cool on a wire rack.

Make the filling: beat the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy, then gradually add the lime juice and zest. Match the biscuits into evenly-sized pairs. Turn half upside down and spoon a little filling onto each, then sandwich with the other half. Refrigerate for half an hour to firm up.

Serve with plenty of tea.

paris apéros: le baron rouge

21 Nov

oysters

Around the corner from the place d’Aligre (and the best market in Paris) is the convivial wine-bar Le Baron Rouge. Lean on an old wine barrel, for it is often busy, standing room only, and enjoy a plate of rich charcuterie: salami, ham and rillettes. Ask for a recommendation for the wine, as they really know their stuff. Don’t be afraid to taste and reject either: the first suggestion was too sharp for both us, the second just right. They sell bottles as well as wine by the litre from enormous barrels. Outside, there are crates of oysters from Normandy or Brittany cracked in front of you and served with brown bread and butter. An picturesquely gruff French man was waiting for the servers to crack a dozen so he could take them home for his dinner.

My friends persuaded me to try the slippery things – a dreadful lacuna in my food education – or at least, two of them did. The third swore blind that they were horrid, salty, gross. We poured cold water on her by inventing a new idiom: she was oystering our experience. Later that same night there was a tipsy argument as to the true signification of said phrase: whether it meant to deliberately sabotage or just to be a pessimist about X. Eventually we agreed to accept meanings one and two in our imaginary modern compendium of food phraseology. Common usage: don’t oyster my idea!

All of which is besides the point: my first oyster was simply lemony and refreshing. The brown bread and butter was a perfect accompaniment, the bar lively and the wine delightful.

Le Baron Rouge: 1 Rue Théophile Roussel, 75012, metro: Ledru-Rollin – closed Monday

Chocolate passion-fruit torte

15 Nov

passionfruit torte 1

It always make me sad when, upon admitting what I do for a living, I am told “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly bake a cake for you!” I learned to be a pastry chef because I like to eat cake and because I know how much pleasure it affords to offer cake to others and have them enjoy it. Baking is a pure indulgence, both in the construction and consumption, a fairy tale of spun sugar. If people are afraid to bake for me, they lose out on that satisfied feeling of having created something totally frivolous and yet universally appreciated. What’s more, I would miss out on their speciality, their tricks and tastes. I love collecting others’ recipes and have miles more to learn.

My cousin said exactly that when she brought over my birthday cake and it turned out to be wonderful, a soft chocolate sponge iced with a mix of whipped cream and Greek yoghurt, covered all over with sweet shreds of coconut. (Almost like a reverse lamington?) It was actually a variation on my favourite kind of summer cake, sponge and fruit and cream. So when the family challenged me to make something for the next week, I had to think again.

passionfruit torte 2

This was the result, a total show-off’s torte, two punchy flavours and five different techniques. Soft almond meringue sponges sandwich glossy passion-fruit jelly, rich chocolate ganache and buttery passion-fruit curd, all iced with a delicate chocolate Chantilly. The thin layers all meld for a bittersweet mouthful, tempered by the luxurious cream. In reality though, it is not difficult to prepare, as long as you start the evening before so everything can cool. The sponges, less than a centimetre thick, take a few minutes to cook and the ganache and jelly are both left to set in cake tins so they can just be flipped out in the morning.

This quantity of passion-fruit curd makes more than you will need for the cake, but it uses up the egg yolks and is delightful on toast. (A friend of mine introduces me not as ‘Frances, pastry chef’ but ‘Frances, this one time she made passion-fruit curd…’ It is that good.) For a simpler cake, omit one or two of the layers: just use passionfruit jelly and curd, for example. Or easier still, make the meringue sponge then fill and decorate with Greek yoghurt and fresh passionfruit.

passionfruit torte 3

Chocolate passion-fruit torte

makes 12 elegant slices

The passion-fruit pulp I used came in a tin, 55% fruit including seeds, plus water and sugar. You can find it in supermarkets or speciality baking stores. G. Detou in Paris sells passion-fruit purée which is less sweet and has no seeds, so sweeten the curd and jelly accordingly. I wouldn’t recommend using fresh fruit simply because it will require too many, at least a dozen if not more. Alternatively, substitute with half orange and half lemon juice. 

The curd, jelly, ganache and Chantilly need to be made the day before. If  possible, assemble everything a few hours before serving. Continue reading

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