Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting festive

It is two nights before Christmas and all through the house, a foodie was stirring, in the mood for some curing - some salmon curing that is.

Back from an early trip to Borough market and bolstered by coffee and a fresh Chelsea bun, I’m ready for some cooking in readiness for some Christmas feasting.

The menu has been planned and re-planned. This is the first blog for the appertivo.

Having originally planned to do just beetroot cured salmon and homemade blinis, I felt the need for a contingency plan. Beetroot! Well beetroot can sometimes be a little too beetroot. Having never tried curing before and with the vodka experiment looking all a little dubious, I wanted the safety need of a second option.

So after scouring the internet, I came across this recipe, which I modified. This is the easier of the two, in terms of mess but the smell was heavenly.

Sugar-cured salmon with orange and star anise
250 gram piece of salmon filler, skin on but bones removed (brought from the wonderful Borough market at 08.00 am this morning)
50 g rock salt
50 g sugar
1 star anise, rough crushed
½ orange, zested
1.5 tbsp of vodka

Combine the salt, sugar, star anise and orange zest. The orange zest makes the mixture incredibly moist and combined with the star anise, the smell is wonderful.

Lay the salmon on a plate skin-side down. Spread the mixture over the salmon flesh and sprinkle over the vodka.

Wrap in clingfilm, then put a board on top and weigh it down. I used the jar of vodka that I have been infusing with pear, plum, of which today I added pomegranate.

Leave for 24 hours, but every few hours tip off any liquid that collects.

Beet-root cured salmon
Hold your breath and dive right it. I love beetroot but it is not to everyone's taste. The colour is fantastic; although the puree as described, it is less than appealing– like a large tongue.

Anyway, here’s the recipe. It’s from BBC food and I am citing the original recipe rather than the modifications I made to suit the 200g piece of fish I used.

It has more salt and sugar than the previous recipe, of which I can only guess why. The proof of course will be in the tasting and that will come on Christmas day.

500 - 700g of salmon
8 beetroot
500 g of course sea salt
750g sugar
50ml honey
1 tbs of fennel seeds

Puree the beetroot and add to the combined sugar, salt and ground fennel seeds. Add the honey. Spread generously over the salmon - this is not hard as you can see from the picture below. It is a rich, intense marinate. Cover the salmon with cling wrap. Place in the fridge, weighed under a chopping board with something heavy of top. It stays there for at least 24 hours.

So now, it's time to make your blinis. All I can say is that they are so so easy.

Buckwheat blinis

Ingredients are as follows: 70g buckwheat; the same amount again of plain flour; 1/3 tablespoon of baking powder; 175ml of warm milk (it needs to be warm to dissolve the yeast); 1 egg separate (you will whisk the egg white and add later); 125g butter; 1/3 tbsp of dried yeast.

Begin by combining all the dry ingredients, remember to do the normal sifting of flours. Mix the dried yeast with the warmed milk. Separate your eggs and add the yolk to the dry mixture and combine all. Whisk your egg white until they form peaks and then fold in gently. Don't sidestep this part of the recipe that I'm always tempted to do, as the egg whites make the blinis light.

With the 125 g of butter, clarify it by gently melting in a pan over a low heat. Pour off the yellow liquid. What's left, you need to disguard. Heat the clarified butter and drop in dessertspoons of batter. Turn when the blini starts to bubble.

The result is home-cured salmon with blinis.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some winter nostaglia

I make no pretence or claim to be a baker.

Cakes, muffins, scones, have never been a part of my repertoire. If anything, if I was to describe my culinary preferences, I’d say that I was more of your slow cook style of girl.

For me, the longer it cooks the better. Heaven is a seven-hour lamb studded with anchovies and garlic. My favourite thing is my Le Creuset; positioned on my stove-top ever at the ready.

I’m surprised really by my lack of sweet prowess, as I’m more likely to default to a sweet fix than a savoury one. Perhaps my lack of achievement is hereditary, borne out of by a complete lack of necessity.

My mother is a fabulous cook of that 1950s generation of housewife: the first of the mix master set, the original domestic goddess. Hers was the era when efficiency met domestic science and the brand name ruled in the kitchen for the first time.

Saturday was baking day. I used to watch from the sidelines, curious but banned to the perimeter, so that I wouldn’t get in the way. I looked on amazed at her deft hand and her ability to coax and conjure eggs, milk and flour into lightweight concoctions to be decorated with jam and sugar icing. (There was no need to learn how to cook as she was so good at baking.)

So the fact that I find myself posed over a mixing bowl with a spatula in hand, though sans apron, is somewhat surprising. I’d like to think that it’s the Christmas spirit that has inspired my current gesture of cookery – the mini-Christmas muffin.

After two days of picture-perfect snow, one can’t help but think it’s all starting to look, smell and feel a lot like Christmas. And if Christmas inspires anything in me, it’s nostalgia.

My all time favourite (and I mean favourite) winter treat is mince pies. It’s the aroma of clove, ginger, cinnamon, candied fruit and over-generous dustings of icing sugar that I love.

Today most people just buy jars of it. (Mine was purchased yesterday at my local deli – Robertson’s finest classic mince meat (a most curious name when you think about it.)

I know that it doesn’t taste the same as the good stuff – that heady mix of dried fruits, alcohol, peel and spice that was left to ferment in the run up to the Christmas by everyone’s elderly aunt. The apparatus of course was always the large china mixing bowl and the slightly discoloured dampened tea towel.

Anyway, so two days of snow and here I am in the kitchen waiting patiently for my mini-muffins to cook. Having peered into the oven, there’s not so mini anymore. I added an extra tablespoon of mincemeat to the mixture and I think that they are now weighed down by too much nostalgia.
But the smell of the kitchen is as it as it should be: warm and peppered with the smells of flour and egg, dark chocolate and mincemeat.

The perfect treat on a cold Sunday just before Christmas.

Christmas mini-muffins (courtesy of BBC Food)
200 grams of self-raising flour (sifted)
100g golden caster sugar ( I just used normal)
100 ml sunflower oil
75ml milk
1 large free range egg
1 heaped tablespoon of high quality mincemeat (not sure what makes high quality but Robertson has a royal warranty, so presumeably it hits the mark)
50 grams of dark chocolate

Now before we go any further I need to say the recipe recommends that the mixture is divided in half and combined with 50 grams of dried cranberries and 50g of white chocolate. I decided to devote all my mixture to mincemeat and dark chocolate.

While pausing, I should also add that I got a little confused with my measurements and while I added two extra heaped tablespoons of mincemeat, I forgot to add more chocolate. (I've just tasted one from the over and it tasted pretty good to me.

So you pre-heat the oven to 190C. While the oven is heating, mix together the flour and sugar.

I did this by hand - there is no need to put out the KitchenAid.
Now we have a KitchenAid in our house - it belongs to my co-conspirator. He is the baker. He highly recommended that I hand mix these ingredients. I suspect he did this because (1) it is more than possible to and (2) he likes to keep me away from his cherry-red anniversary KitchenAid.

Having mixed the flour and sugar, in a separate bowl, whisk the oil, egg and milk and then slowly add to the dry ingredients.

Combine, so you get a mixture that is the equivalent of a batter. Then add your mincemeat and chocolate, which you have chopped. Mix everything together and place in mini-muffing cases.

Now according to the BBC, I should have used a mini-muffin tray and I would have except that I don't have one. Our kitchen can barely cope with the Le Creuset and tagine on the stove and the KitchenAid. So, I just used a normal muffin tray.

The result is muffins that will never ever look like the beautiful miniture pudding-like muffins on the website. Instead, they look like something a Christmas grinch would have made - neither muffin nor Christmas canape!

They do taste delicious, and once I make the icing, I think they'll serve the purpose of achiving some winter cheer.

Pear infused vodka

You’ll find one in every in-flight magazine: the 24 hours in ... (insert a city) travel article. It's compulsory reading somewhere between the boredom of overhead safety procedures and the snack service.

For even the most independent traveller, there is something slightly glamorous about this promise of the 24-hour experience. You arrive relaxed and eager, armed with insider knowledge, confident of where to go, and what to see.

So hopefully, you can empathise and forgive me for my lapse in judgement. My ticket said departure time Saturday at 9.10 and returning at 5.15 pm the following day. Destination: Vienna.

What followed was less than the promised 24-hour travel article experience. Now I do not want to dwell on the details and it was still a wonderful experience. But letters have been written, another trip planned and a national airline has been added to the blacklist!

The highlight of this shortened trip was the outstanding, sublime and trully extraordinary Christmas vodka served at Restaurant Zum Kuckuck.

The beauty of this apertif, blushed pink with pear and plum, and served at the start of our meal was inspiring. One bottle of vodka later, the experiment begins:

Pear infused vodka

Take 750 mL vodka; Six Bartlett pears, cut into eight slices and four plums, cut into quarters.
Place fruit in container and add the vodka.

Now from there, you are subject to the various laws of fruit infusion and alcohol.

Somewhere, there must be a definite guide. I haven't found it - a little like the promise of the 24-hours travel experience; however, this is what I have learnt:

  • You use a large glass container with an airtight lid for your infusion.
  • The infusion is only as good as the vodka - so as in most things in life, buy the best one you can.
  • As the fruit absorbs the vodka, you 750 ml bottle will reduce to three cups.
  • To chill or not to chill: some articles say a dark cardboard; other says the fridge for faster results. I want to have mine on Christmas day, so it's in the fridge.
  • To make citrus vodkas use the peel of the fruit. Do not infuse too long as the vodka will become bitter.
  • Continually taste the infusion

Infusion analysis:

  • End of day one: Clear liquid. No discolouration of fruit.
  • Day three: Beginnings of colouration. Blush hue. Fruit has began to discolour. Feeling optimistic.
  • Day five: Taste test. Despite the promise of colour which is now very blush, there is no hint of fruit in the taste. Do I add more fruit? The fruit has started to disintegrate. On Monday it will be one week since this process began. Might need to consult further.
  • Day twelve: Remain highly suspicious of the outcome. The fruit is now very brown and there have been no further changes to the colour or the taste of the vodka. Christmas is in three days. Consult my beloved co-conspirator. He suggests raspberries. As we are off to Borough market tomorrow for provisions we agree to look for some .
  • Day thirteen: Back from market. Have added pomegrantite seeds. Such a magnificent colour. Also decide to add some sugar - just a dessert spoon to try and improve the taste.
  • Day fourteen: The first thing I do when I wake up is check the vodka. An almost miraculous change in colour. Taste has also improved. I remain suspect but we'll see.

Christmas day: Serve vodka in frozen glasses with homemade cured salmon. A big hit!