Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Just Like Child's Play

Some things come in pairs: spring and asparagus; rain and mud; sun and blue skies. And in my mind, custard always come with meringues. Because that's how it has always been in my mother's kitchen: the egg whites left over from making custard were quickly whipped into a batch of crisp meringues. And yet, egg whites can be so much more...

You may wonder what more there can be than little meringues kisses that melt in your mouth, and you'd be absolutely right for thinking that was sweetness enough. But, egg whites need not be turned into frothy clouds to be delightful: they can be simply combined with two more ingredients to make wonderful macaroons.

The macaroon is nothing like dainty French macarons. Although both are made with egg whites, have a shell that hides a moist interior, the humble macaroon is much easier to make, and is just as satisfying to eat. The following recipe is perfect for using up the four egg whites left-over from making this tiramisù.

Coconut Macaroons
Makes about 2 dozens

300g/3 cups unsweetened, shredded coconut
200g/1 cup sugar
4 egg whites
1 tsp vanilla essence or the zest of 1 orange

Mix all the ingredients together until thoroughly combined.
Take the mix by the heaping tablespoonful, and squeeze tightly before placing on a parchment-lined baking tray.
Bake in a 150°C/300°F oven for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Leave to cool down completely.

That's it! It really is that easy! If you cannot find unsweetened coconut, reduce the amount of sugar by about 30g/3Tbs. Coconut macaroons will keep for about a week in an airtight container. Although they may lose their crunchy shell, they will still be delicious.

Bon app'!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pick Me Up

The month of May is coming up very soon, and with it, Mother's Day (in many countries, though not in the UK). While I have fond memories of going to the market on Sunday morning to buy a large bouquet of carnations for my mother, what really sticks in my mind are the desserts I would make for Mother's day lunch: orange crème caramel; strawberry shortcake; orange and chocolate drizzle cake... In fact, were I to do everything all over again, instead of making all those elaborate roast lunches, I would go for fancy teas, with stacks of little sandwiches and a choice of little cakes and scones.

So, in anticipation of Mother's Day -or any other occasion- here is my recipe for tiramisù -which literally means 'pick me up' in Italian. There are thousands of recipes for tiramisù, but this one is my favourite: the mascarpone mix is light and fluffy, yet firm enough that the dessert can be cut into portions should you decide to make in a large pan instead of individual servings. Mascarpone is labelled as a cheese, but it is much closer -in texture and in fat content- to crème fraiche and clotted cream. It can usually be found at Italian delis or close to other Italian cheeses in the dairy section.

Makes 6-7 individual glasses or 22cm/9" square dish

4 yolks
60g/5 Tbs sugar
250ml/1 cup double (whipping cream)
250g/8.82 oz mascarpone

1 packet of lady fingers or Savoiardi cookies
250ml/1 cup strong coffee
1 shot amaretto, optional
cocoa powder 

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the yolks and sugar until the mix turns a pale yellow and forms thick ribbons when you lift the whisk from the bowl.
In a separate bowl, whip the cream until the soft peaks stage, and fold into the egg yolks.
Beat the mascarpone until soft, and gradually add to the yolks and cream mix.
Whip the mix until quite firm, and set aside in the fridge.
If you are using an electric beater or a stand mixer, you can mix everything in the same bowl: start with the yolks and sugar; add the cream once the yolks have thickened and turned pale yellow; the mascarpone can be added straight from its tub when the cream reaches the soft peak stage. 
While the mascarpone mix rests in the fridge, stir the amaretto, if using, into the coffee.
For individual servings, break the lady finger cookies so that they fit in the glasses. Otherwise, they can remain whole.
Dip the cookies in the coffee, turning them over so that they are soaked, but do NOT let them sit in the coffee or they will fall apart.
Place one layer of cookies at the bottom of the dish, then cover with the mascarpone mix. Add another layer of soaked lady fingers, and finish with more mascarpone cream.
Leave to rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving.
When you are ready to serve the tiramisù, use a tea strainer or a sieve to dust some cocoa powder on top.

Tiramisù will keep for three days in the fridge, and will taste even better with time. If you are unable to find lady fingers, you can always use a plain sponge cake or even some stale pound cake. Or better yet, as it is rhubarb season, you can always use layers of poached rhubarb instead!

Bon app'!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


It's the season for Japanese cherry blossoms in London! This time of the year is called Hana Mi in Japanese (literally meaning 'flower watching'), and can begin as early as February if the winter is particularly mild, however, it still remains a strong portent for spring. These flowers, also known as Sakura, have a subtle aroma, and the most beguiling looks: I could happily set up a picnic beneath its bows as they do in Japan were the tree not growing on the side of a parking lot, near a very busy road.

Although most Japanese are content to just laze about under the trees in the spring, confectioners preserve the flowers and young leaves in salt to use as flavouring in special treats that are only available during cherry blossom season. The salted blossoms are also steeped in hot water to make a very floral tea.

Not just a pretty face!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Take Your Time

Good things come to those who wait. It's easy to forget this saying when we are used to the instant gratification of the internet, ready-made foods and fast-everything. The professional culinary world is no different: the mad rush of service, tempers flare up, egos boil over, but the adrenaline buzz is oh-so addictive that slowing down is rarely an option.

If there is one thing I've learned as a chef, it's that cooking at home should be enjoyable, that every instant should be savoured... Oh, I know that time is a luxury in today's mad race between work, school runs, and driving everyone to wherever they need to be, but it's a luxury we should all allow ourselves to indulge in. Just as Mother Nature is taking her sweet time to coax Spring out of hiding, so should we take our time to make the food that is to nourish us, body and soul.

Experienced gardeners, like good cooks, know that everything comes together in its own time, and there is no point in rushing things. Seeds sown too early will sprout, but will remain weak and scraggly, no matter how much care and heat we may shower upon them. April is just the right time to be sowing salads, radishes, turnips, and to push those potatoes into a deep pot for an early crop of new potatoes. The seeds seem to know when the days grow longer, and they will reward you with strong growth. Despite the snow outside your window.

Bread also likes to take its time. It can be made in under two hours, but the best flavour comes from a slow and cool rise, taking as much as two days from start to finish. Dough that proved overnight -even in the fridge- will develop flavour compounds that can never be obtained in a bread maker. And slow-risen breads keep better than rushed loaves, though they might not stick around long enough to get stale!

So slow down. Perhaps not every single day, but when the time permits. If you are lucky enough to be living in an area with clear grounds and sky, April is the perfect month to done your wellies, grab a bag, a pair of scissors, and spend the afternoon trampling in the woods: there are nettles to pick, wild garlic to forage, cherry blossoms and crab apple flowers for tea and desserts, and many other wild tidbits to hunt for. You can read or hear all about it in this edition of the Splendid Table.

However, if you are still shivering from the unseasonably cool weather, then take refuge in the kitchen, and make a stew, a curry, or some chili: your hearth and your heart will be warmed. Week-ends, days off and holidays may be more conducive to slow-cooked meals, but if you make a large batch, they can be enjoyed later in the week, or better yet, pack them up and freeze some to eat when your day just doesn't have enough hours.

For every other day of the week, just do as my friend K does: she makes large batches of crushed garlic and minced ginger when they're in season or on sale, keeps what can be used withing a few weeks in the fridge, and freezes the rest. K is a busy mother of two young children, yet she manages to make lovely curries and other complex Indian fares from scratch every day. It might seem trivial, but having jars of homemade condiments to hand easily shaves 5 to 10 minutes off of daily preps. While you can buy minced garlic, ginger and chillies, store-bought products often contain preservatives such as citric acid that can unpleasantly alter flavours. Processed in a blender simply with vegetable oil, homemade purées have clean flavours, and most will keep for two weeks, and up to a month in the case of garlic and chilli. So all you need to do after an intense day of foraging is turn on the stove, heat some oil, sauté some garlic and ginger and throw in all your pickings! 

Enjoy the time it takes for the ingredients to come together, and bon app'!

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