Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Eat it with your mouth, not your eyes

Spinach soup (p90). Doesn't sound very appealing, does it? Well, you'd be surprised.

I picked up a $1 bunch of spinach at the markets the other day, well aware that I had this recipe to do. I had a bit of trouble motivating myself to make it though. As always, I was willing to give it a go, but frankly didn't have very high expectations. Finally, this evening, I dragged myself off the couch (and away from the suddenly very effective fast food ads on TV) and into the kitchen.

The trouble I always have with spinach is that, however much I wash it, it still seems to be gritty. Determined to avoid a gritty soup, I placed all my spinach leaves in the sink, and rinsed them repeatedly.

The next step is to sauté onions and garlic in butter. Normally I'd substitute canola oil as a healthier option, but, this time I stuck with the butter, feeling like I needed to keep in as much flavour as possible. The delicious smell was an added bonus: suddenly, the soup didn't seem so unappealing anymore.

When my onion was cooked through, I added the spinach, along with chicken stock, salt and pepper. I hadn't used a particularly large saucepan, and had to stuff all the spinach in. Luckily, spinach wilts down quite quickly, or I might have been in trouble.

I got the soup boiling and left it simmering for ten minutes. At the end of this time, I added a little sugar, then transferred the soup to my food processor.

What I had taken off the stove was a saucepan full of anaemically green liquid with soggy leaves floating in it. Surprisingly, pureeing this mixture only made it look less appealing - a bit like a watery spirulina drink. I was not particularly keen to try it, but I soldiered on, adding nutmeg and stirring a very generous dollop of yoghurt through the portion I ladelled for myself.

Since the soup was so watery, the yoghurt just sank straight to the bottom. I had a go at stirring it through, before sitting down and trying a spoonful.

Would you believe it was actually quite pleasant? I'd put in enough yoghurt to add a noticeable tang to the flavour, but I could also taste the nutmeg and those buttery onions. Oddly enough, the spinach itself seemed to be mostly a background flavour. I ate the entire bowlful quite happily, and will probably take some for lunch tomorrow.

So there you go: even when you're convinced a dish is going to be awful, it can turn around and surprise you. Guess you shouldn't judge a soup by its colour...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Munching on munchkins

I'd eaten up all my peanut brownies, so it was time to stock up the baking again. After a little browsing, I selected munchkin bars (p64), which appeared to be a sort of homemade muesli bar.

A brief glance at the recipe will tell you that this is nowhere near as healthy as you might expect from a muesli bar though, (sadly, this is also the case with most bought ones) as the oats and seeds that make up the bulk of the bar are held together by a thick sugary concoction.

That aside (or perhaps because of it) I thought the muchkin bars sounded pretty tasty. Another plus was they were very quick to make. While butter, brown sugar, apricot jam and golden syrup were melting together in a saucepan, I combined rolled oats, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, coconut and sultanas in a bowl, then emptied the bowl into the melted mixture in the saucepan.

I pressed the contents of my saucepan into a sponge roll tin and put it in the oven. The cooking time given was 25 minutes or until golden. After 20 minutes I decided it was looking nice and golden - in fact, a bit overdone at the edges - so I took it out.

It wasn't very firm, though. I hoped it would firm up as it cooled, but when I cut it into bars and tried to take one out for a taste, it fell apart so badly I had to eat it with a spoon. Interestingly, the edge bits I originally felt were overdone were the only parts that held together, and were moreishly chewy and far more appealing than the rest of the slice. Looks like I was jumping the gun when I cut back the cooking time.

I turned on the oven again, and plonked the tin back in for another five minutes or so. This time, once the slice had cooled, the pieces actually held together, which was an improvement.

My munchkin bars pretty much lived up to my 'like a muesli bar' expectations. They were sweet and chewy, full of flavour and texture. If you like the sound of these, give this recipe a go - but don't be tempted to take it out of the oven early!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pancake sandwich

I hadn't taken any baking into work for quite a while. So, with one eye on the number of sponges I still have to do, I promised a sponge cake last week. Of course, it was 8pm on Thursday night before I actually remembered to make it. 

I decided to make a sponge sandwich (p69), which is a variation on the sponge roll recipe. You use the same recipe, but bake it in sponge sandwich tins instead of a single sponge roll tray. 

As with most sponges, the main ingredient is eggs: you begin by beating eggs with salt, then beating in sugar and vanilla (The sugar here was supposed to be caster sugar, but found I'd run out, so I had to substitute plain white sugar, which may or may not have had a bearing on the final result).

The next step is to sift flour and baking soda together and fold them into the egg mixture. I seem to have trouble with this bit; the flour just clumps together and sinks to the bottom. I did my best to combine the mixtures without stirring all the air out of the eggs, before folding through the final ingredient - melted butter - and pouting the mixture into sponge sandwich tins.

Normally, I grease and line sponge sandwich tins, but I noticed the recipe said 'grease and flour', so I had a go at that. Probably I ought to have greased it with butter, old-school style, but spraying them with oil is just so much quicker. Anyway, when I sprinkled flour over the oil, it looked like it was turning to a kind of paste. Whoops - never mind, pour the mix on top of it and pretend it didn't happen!

When I got the sponges out of the oven, they looked surprisingly good - cooked through, spongy and without any obvious floury lumps. The only negative was that they had only risen to about half the height of a decent sponge cake. When sandwiched together, I was going to have a cake 20cm round and about 2.5cm high: not good enough.

It really hadn't taken long to make the sponge sandwich, so I decided to make another one, thus doubling the height of my cake. I went through all the above steps again, this time deciding to line the sandwich tins instead of flouring them. A slight hiccup occurred when I was pouring the sponge mixture into the tins and realised I hadn't added the butter. I poured all the mix back into the bowl, folded through the butter and returned the mixture to the tins. I lost a bit of air out of the mixture by doing this, but didn't think I could get away with leaving out the butter.

The second batch of sponges came out even more dismally flat than the first. Oh well. I let them cool down and packed my stack of flat sponges in a container overnight.

In the morning, I whipped up some cream and got out my homemade apricot jam, believing that if I added enough cream and jam, it would take attention away from the crappy sponges. It was at least a good excuse to dig out my cake pedestal, a frivolous post-Christmas purchase I hadn't yet had the opportunity to use.

I stacked up my sponges, spreading a generous amount of jam and cream between each layer, and sprinkling the top with icing sugar. At a glance, it looked quite good - to anyone who didn't know it was a disaster in disguise!

It didn't taste too bad either: As I'd hoped, the apricot jam saved the day and made a dodgy cake quite palatable. That's not to say that the cake itself actually tasted bad. It's more that it didn't exactly meet the standards of a sponge cake, i.e. it didn't rate very highly on the "light and airy" scale. In fact, the entire concoction looked and tasted more like a stack of pancakes than anything else. Good thing everyone loves pancakes, then, isn't it?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Curry convert?

I wouldn't really call myself a curry person. I enjoy curries when  I eat them, but I very seldom think "man, I really feel like a curry tonight". I automatically skip over the curry section of a menu, and only ever eat at Indian restaurants at someone else's suggestion.

It's pretty much unheard of for me to cook curry at home. So it's quite odd that as I sat at my desk today, staring out at the dull drizzle that has recently usurped our Summer, it occurred to me that tonight would be a good night to make lamb curry (p150).

The suggested accompaniment for lamb curry is cucumber salad, or 'raita' (p150). Along with that, I decided to make some lemon rice (p106), which would round it all off into a decent meal.

I'd intended to make the full recipe of curry, thus providing myself with 'lunch leftovers' for a couple of days, but when I got to the supermarket and saw the price of lamb, I decided to stay with my usual half-recipe. The recipe isn't very specific about what cuts of lamb to use, but it doesn't seem to indicate anything bone-in, so I got a pack of leg steaks and cut them into cubes.

I began by chopping up and cooking some onions and garlic. While these were cooking, I tossed the meat in seasoned flour, ready for cooking. When the onions were cooked, I scooped them out and set them aside while I browned the lamb in two batches.

This done, I returned all the meat and onions to the pan, along with tomato paste, ginger, cumin, chilli ground coriander, ground cardamom, and chicken stock. I have to confess to a certain amount of 'cheating' - I used ginger and garlic out of a jar instead of fresh, and since I wasn't about to buy a whole packet of fresh chillis just to use one, I just added a generous sprinkle of chilli flakes instead.

There didn't seem to be much liquid, so I sloshed in a little more stock. Then I placed a lid over the pan and left it gently simmering while I went about preparing my accompaniments.

Cucumber salad (raita) is pretty similar to Greek tzatziki - it's mostly cucumber and yoghurt, but this one also includes toasted cumin seeds and spring onions. Firstly, you have to salt the seeded, chopped cucumbers, and leave them for 15 minutes (I presume this is to remove the excess liquid from the cucumber). Meanwhile, I was toasting the cumin seeds in a dry pan and keeping an eye on the curry.

After 15 minutes, I rinsed and drained the cucumber pieces, and combined them with the cumin seeds, chopped spring onion, and some yoghurt. I used Greek yoghurt, mostly because I really like the creaminess of it. The recipe is for plain unsweetened yoghurt though, so whichever you prefer.

Finally, I put on the rice, placing equal quantities of long grain rice and water in a pan with lemon zest and juice. It's pretty easy - you just bring it to the boil, then turn the heat off, and let the rice absorb the water as it sits on the warm element.  I did find that when I went to use the rice, it was slightly scorched in the bottom of the pan - but I'm not sure at what stage of the rice-cooking this occurred.

The recipe states to cook the curry for an hour, or until the meat is tender. I thought that was a bit weird, since  lamb is quite tender to start with - it doesn't usually require long, slow cooking. My half recipe had cooked almost all the liquid out of it by the time I turned it off at the 40-minute mark. Half an hour would probably have been better.

I was astonished at how tasty I found the curry. It actually approximates the earthy flavour of an authentic Indian curry, but without the huge list of spices you generally see on a curry recipe. Granted, there are a few spices in there, but any you don't already have in the cupboard will be cheap and easy to find (and don't forget I took a few shortcuts with mine).

There's a reason why the raita is recommended with the curry. The fresh, tangy creaminess cuts through that earthy curry taste, and tones down the spiciness. I did put quite a few of those chilli flakes in, after all - but the great thing about making curry at home is that you can choose your own spice level.

As for the lemon rice, it was a bit overshadowed by the curry, but it's not meant to be the star of the show, after all. Simply adding a little lemon juice and rind into your rice pot makes for a subtle difference in flavour, something to try if you're sick of bland, plain rice.

I think I enjoyed this meal more than anything else I've eaten in weeks. It's made me think differently about cooking curry at home. I can't afford to buy lamb all the time, but it might be worthwhile experimenting with beef, or with cheaper lamb cuts like chops. Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend the recipe as it stands. It's simple and very tasty. What's not to like?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Half a packet of peanuts

I was flicking through my Edmonds book the other day, trying to decide what I could make for my morning teas this week. I rejected several recipes due to not having the appropriate ingredients, but then I noticed peanut brownies (p42). I still had some roasted, unsalted peanuts in the cupboard from the carrot salad I made a few weeks back - and here was the ideal way to use them up!

I should perhaps point out that a peanut brownie is a biscuit; it's not a brownie in the cake-like American style. Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of brownie, of course: I love American brownies, it's just that this isn't one.

It only took a few minutes to cream butter and sugar, then add eggs and dry ingredients before stirring through the peanuts. This produced a mixture that was soft and easy to roll into balls, but not wet enough to make your hands sticky.

When I had all my balls of biscuit dough laid out on a tray, I squished them with a fork and put them in the oven for 15 minutes. The resulting biscuits were crisp and sweet, with just enough peanuts to make them  more interesting than a plain bikkie.

 It's easy to be put off this recipe because the ingredient list seems to suggest you roast your own peanuts - not a difficult task in itself, but one that lengthens the time and effort required to make a very simple biscuit.

If you want to roast your own peanuts, go ahead. Otherwise, just buy yourself some pre-roasted ones like I did. Either way, once you have the nuts sorted, you're about 20 minutes away from a fresh batch of peanut brownies.Yum.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Oxford muffins

Mum and Dad were passing through Oxford on Saturday, and I'd arranged to meet them for a takeaway lunch. I found I had a spare 45 minutes before I had to leave, and decided to make some spice muffins (p30) to take with me.

Like most muffins, these were pretty quick to make. You have creamed butter, sugar and egg in one bowl, sift the dry ingredients (which include cinnamon and mixed spice, thus turning the plain muffin recipe into spiced muffins) into another, then dissolve baking soda in milk in a third bowl (or jug).

The next step is to add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk, and combine the three mixtures, very carefully to avoid overmixing. After that, just spoon into muffin tins and bake. 

I packed up the muffins, along with some homemade apricot jam, and headed out to Oxford. As it turned out, there was no need to bring any food; the local bakery supplied us with lunch in the form of smoked venison pies, and Mum had enough to supplement this without the addition of a batch of muffins. But we ate them anyway, of course.

These are some pretty old-school muffins. They're small and plain - the sort of thing that's designed to be buttered (or jammed). They really bear no comparison to the sort of massive deluxe muffins you get these days, so you have to evaluate them to a different standard. And by the standards of plain, simple baking, these are actually very tasty. They're soft and moist, but not soggy, and are especially tasty if you happen to have a bit of apricot jam.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A beer with dinner

I have a hazy recollection of attempting beer batter (p112) some years ago, when I was living in a student flat with four hungry boys. This was done to the boys' specifications as opposed to the Edmonds recipe, and I don't recall that it turned out all that well.

Putting this failed attempt behind me, I had another go last night, dropping by the supermarket for a fillet of gurnard and a single stubby of Speights.

It's an extremely basic recipe - just flour, salt and beer. I found that the quantity of beer given in the recipe was not nearly enough, and added more...and then more...and more again. By the time my batter had reached the nice smooth consistency described in the recipe, I'd put in about double the amount shown in the recipe.

The batter was a bit lumpy, so I gave it a good whisk to smooth it out, before dipping my fish in the batter and and attempting to get it evenly coated. I had some oil heating in a frying pan, which sizzled satisfyingly as I placed the fish in. 

In the few minutes it took for the fish to cook, I threw together a salad, (including salad from my garden, and the first ripe tomato off my plant! You'll have to forgive my excitement; I've never had a garden before) And before long, I had a meal on the table, with most of a bottle of beer to go with it.

The beer batter was actually a bit surprising - I'd expected it to bubble up a bit, but actually it seemed to coat the fish in a smooth, golden layer, which was not just crispy, but actually crunchy in places: a pleasant contrast to the soft flesh of the fish. 

It's possible that this is not the desired result, but merely what happens when you add so much beer you thin it down considerably. I'm not sure, but I since I enjoyed the result I got, what does it matter?

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