Monday, 28 July 2014

Courgette and Bacon Gratin

If there's one over-riding reason why I don't post many savoury recipes, it's because I don't often follow a recipe when I make something for dinner. Obviously there's a general template to follow to produce something like a lasagne, or a sausage pie, and I'm often inspired by recipes I've read, but I don't make things exactly the same every time, and I don't often take note of the quantities I use, particularly when I add things to adjust the flavour and seasoning as I go along. Generally, cooking of this sort is a lot more forgiving than baking cakes, where more precision is usually needed.

I did take a bit more notice while I was making this gratin, partly because Hubs has accused me of thwarting his efforts to lose weight by making too many cakes and desserts, so I might have less to post unless I write about my savoury cooking. As I say, I took a bit more notice, but it's still a fairly loose recipe - a little more or less of anything would probably have worked just as well, and it could easily be made a vegetarian recipe by leaving out the bacon and choosing a vegetarian-compatible cheese. I used this recipe by Ina Garten as inspiration.

Ingredients (to serve 2)
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
half an onion, finely chopped
100g smoked bacon or pancetta pieces
3 medium courgettes - around 500g - cut into 0.5cm slices
1 clove garlic, crushed
12 sage leaves, finely shredded
1 tablespoon plain flour
milk, as necessary - roughly 200mls
salt and pepper to taste
50g fresh white breadcrumbs
50g grated parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon pine nuts

Heat the oil on a medium heat, in a large frying pan, and fry the bacon pieces and onion until the bacon is beginning to brown. Lower the heat a little and add the courgettes and garlic, and continue frying, turning occasionally, until the courgettes are beginning to soften.

Add the sage leaves, then stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Add the milk gradually, allowing the sauce to thicken between additions. There will be more liquid coming out of the courgettes as the gratin bakes in the oven, so you want a very thick coating sauce at this stage, otherwise there will be too much thin sauce at the end of cooking. Season to taste - I didn't need any extra salt because of the bacon. Put this mixture into an ovenproof dish.

Mix together the breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and pine nuts, and scatter in an even layer over the courgette mixture. Bake at 180C for 45 minutes, or until the topping is crisp and golden and the courgettes are really soft.

We  really enjoyed this accompanied by a mixture of runner beans and mange tout peas. Hubs doesn't really like completely vegetarian meals, so adding the bacon made it tastier for him. I was also trying to keep this meal relatively low in carbohydrates; for a more filling dish cooked pasta or potatoes could be added, but then I think the sauce would need to be a little thinner, as pasta goes on absorbing moisture during baking.

Looking at the photographs, I feel I ought to explain the idiosyncrasy of cutting mange tout peas in half. Hubs is basically lazy, so eats with just a fork where possible (although just a spoon is even better!). Mange tout peas sometimes have a long stringy bit along one side - if you haven't got a knife handy, this can make them unpleasant to eat whole, as well as difficult to fit into your mouth!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Whipped Cream Cake

Whipped cream cake is a bit of a misnomer to be honest, as my 'cream', which was a mixture of 300mls extra thick double cream and 75mls of semi-skimmed milk, didn't bulk up when whipped. I'd done a rough calculation which suggested the mixture would have roughly the same fat content as the cream needed in the recipe, but obviously that's not the only factor involved in whether cream will whip, or not. I wasn't too worried, as I was only trying the cake as a better alternative to throwing the cream away at the end of it's shelf life, which is something I would be have been very reluctant to do.

I carried on with Rose Levy Beranbaum's recipe (found here, on Martha Stewart's site), regardless, after beating the cream failed. In  this particular recipe the cream is used as a complete substitute for any other form of fat or oil, rather than an additional source of fat and moisture, as in many other recipes which look similar at first glance. It's a cake which is very easy to make with a stand mixer, and I think it would be good baked as a sandwich cake, rather than a bundt cake, if preferred.

I think the loss of the extra air, which would have been held in properly whipped cream, made the cake a little denser than it should have been, but it was still relatively light and very moist. The plain vanilla flavour made this cake an ideal accompaniment to summer fruit, for a dessert, but I think if I make it again I would like to try some additional flavour - citrus zest, rose extract or almond extract perhaps. I would like to make it at least once again, with the right cream to see if I could get an improvement in texture.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Rhubarb or Gooseberries? A Difficult Choice!

As I mentioned a few posts ago, our rhubarb is enjoying a late spurt of growth. I believe there is an old wives' tale that rhubarb shouldn't be harvested after the end of June, but I've never taken any notice of that; I just make sure there are enough stems left on each crown to put some goodness back in for next season's growth. Then I can harvest until the stems either get too thick or start to wilt and die back.

2.5kg of gooseberries, ready for topping and tailing
Last weekend I took off the netting cage which was protecting the ripening gooseberries from the hungry birds. I lost my whole crop the first year I grew gooseberries, so have devised some form of protection since then, which goes on as soon as the fruit starts to ripen. Once it is removed all of the gooseberries have to be picked at once, as it's too difficult to put the netting back round the bushes. I was only just in time with the large bush of green fruit - over-ripe fruit had already fallen off the bush. The red-fruited bush, however, could have been left a little longer; although the fruit that caught the sun at the front of the bush was ripe, there was a lot of unripe fruit at the back.

Red gooseberry crumble
It's hard to resist any fruit straight from the garden, so I made a small gooseberry crumble with most of the red fruit, although hubs complained that I hadn't added my usual oats to the crumble mixture. I added some crushed amaretti biscuits to the flour and butter mixture instead of sugar, which added enough sweetness and some crunch, but the lack of oats made the crumble a bit dry and powdery.

Freeform rhubarb pie
Earlier in the week, I'd made a small freeform rhubarb pie with some shortcrust pastry left over after making a sausage pie. This meant we had two high-carbohydrate desserts in the space of a week, which is almost unheard of these days, but it helped me to decide what to do with the bulk of the gooseberry crop. I'm quite happy eating cooked rhubarb with yogurt, as a healthier dessert, but gooseberries really need to be cooked into a pie, crumble or cake. So, somewhat reluctantly, the gooseberries went into the freezer, saved for future baking sessions, and we'll go on enjoying the rhubarb, picked as required, for a little longer.

Of course, blackberries will soon be ready to harvest, and it looks as if it will be a bumper crop this year!

Monday, 21 July 2014

Chocolate and Cherry Flapjack

I hate to waste food, a trait probably handed down from my mother, who started her married life just after WWII, so had to deal with rationing and food shortages. Over the years I've become quite good at not buying more perishable food than we will need before the next shopping trip, and I've been known to decide what to cook for dinner on the basis of half a tin of tomatoes which needs using up. I'm also not a slave to 'use-by' dates unless it's on something potentially dangerous such as shellfish or chicken - old cheese will have the edges cut off, and yogurt will be eaten until it begins to fizz.

So 100mls of chocolate fudge sauce, made mostly of chocolate, with a touch of butter, milk and golden syrup, had to be used somehow. I considered rippling it through vanilla cake batter, or spreading it over a pastry tart base and topping it with a frangipane mixture, but in the end decided to make a small batch of flapjack, using the sauce in place of some of the butter and sweeteners. I added 100g dried cherries for flavour and texture, and ended up with a really tasty version of my usual flapjack recipe. It was a little softer than usual, but a few more minutes in the oven would have remedied that!

My usual recipe would be to melt 160g butter, 65g golden syrup and 100g light brown muscovado sugar together, before stirring in 240g rolled oats and 100g dried fruit and nuts.

I reduced the butter to 120g, the syrup to 50g and the sugar to 50g, and added the chocolate sauce at the melting stage. After the oats and cherries were added, the mixture was transferred to a 20cm (8") square tin, lined with baking parchment, and baked at 180c for 25 minutes. The flapjack was marked into bars while still warm, but cooled completely in the tin before removal.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Coffee and Chocolate Semifreddo

I've never really felt the need to make ice cream at home. We eat relatively little, unless there's a really hot summer, and even then, our simple tastes have always been met by what's available in the supermarkets. This has meant that I've never bought an ice cream maker, which takes me into a perpetual loop, because if I do see a recipe I like the look of, I haven't got a machine to churn it in. As a final reason for not making it (and I think that's enough excuses) - there's hardly ever enough room in the freezer to put a large bowl, if I want to beat an ice cream mix by hand during the freezing process.

However, I don't like to pass up the monthly We Should Cocoa challenge (rules here, on Chocolate Log Blog), and this month Elizabeth from Elizabeth's Kitchen Diary has set us the challenge of making either ice cream or toppings for ice cream, using chocolate in some form. So I managed to clear a little space in the freezer and decided to look for recipes which didn't need churning or beating while freezing. I was delighted to find this recipe, on the BBC Good Food site, for a semifreddo which is frozen in a loaf tin and doesn't set really hard, so it can be served straight from the freezer. As the cream and egg whites in the recipe are beaten separately, there is a lot of air in the mixture which is what prevents it setting too solidly. The only change I made to the recipe was to use 100g of plain chocolate instead of a Toblerone bar.

I had already made a chocolate fudge sauce (175g plain chocolate, and 30g butter were melted together, then 2 tablespoons of golden syrup and 3 tablespoons of milk were beaten in). I was going to serve this warm with the dessert, but knew that it would also set solidly on anything cold. I intended to drizzle this artistically over the block of ice cream but a combination of too large a hole in my piping bag, and panic because the semifreddo was melting quite quickly meant I ended up with rough squiggles instead. I did manage to scatter some chocolate coffee beans on top before the chocolate set.

The family were very impressed with the texture of this semifreddo - it was very light and melt-in-the-mouth soft - and I had been careful to chop the chocolate really finely so that there were no large hard lumps to crunch down on. The basic recipe could easily be adapted for other flavours, but it should be noted that the recipe does contain raw eggs so may not be suitable for everyone.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Another Chocolate Cake

My son's birthday follows hot on the heels of my own this month, but I know what he likes without needing to ask - chocolate! However, apart from celebrating his birthday, this cake was baked as a test of the beautiful, but huge, cake pan I found in T K Maxx. You can imagine my relief when, with the aid of cake release spray, the cake slipped neatly out of the pan, with not a single crumb left behind. It's a shape that's impossible to line, and although I've used butter and flour to coat bundt tins, that can sometimes leave a visible residue behind.

I had worked out, with the aid of smaller cake pans and measuring jugs, that I needed roughly 1.5 times a recipe designed for an 8" square tin. I already had this Dan Lepard cake recipe in mind, as it rises evenly and gives the moist, rich, solid (but still quite light) kind of chocolate cake you want for special occasions, and fortunately it was simple to make it half as big again - no halved eggs for instance! It was perhaps a tiny fraction too much batter, but didn't overflow and still rose evenly, and more importantly, still looked in proportion when cut.

Once I'd got a perfect cake, it seemed a shame to lose all the definition by slathering a frosting or glaze on top, so I contented myself with blobs of chocolate frosting on each segment to hold a mini-Oreo cookie or sweetie. The rest of the chocolate frosting was used as a hot fudge sauce to accompany the cake, and a topping for a coffee and chocolate semifreddo, made for the same birthday dinner.

The cake makes 16 huge portions, which meant, after we each had a piece for dinner, both son and daughter could take a decent sized portion home with them.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Lemon and Marzipan Drizzle Cake

Lemon flavoured cakes can be sublime, or fairly pedestrian, but unless you go down routes which mean that lemon is no longer the dominant flavour, then there doesn't seem to be a lot of variation to the recipes available. In the UK there's lemon drizzle cake and in the USA there's lemon pound cake, both either served fairly plainly or made into layer cakes and stuffed with an excess of sugar and/or dairy fat. I'm sure there are other recipes available, but I spent a long time searching online and couldn't find recipes which looked as if they'd make something which turned out much different in texture to those two. The one exception is chiffon cake, but I didn't feel up to tackling that, even if I had a proper chiffon pan!

But this was my birthday and I wanted a fairly simple lemon cake, but with enough of a twist to lift it above being pedestrian. I didn't want to add fruit, either fresh or dried, but nuts were another matter! I almost passed over this recipe from Woman and Home, because it was another drizzle cake, some of which I find too dense and wet. In the end, not finding anything which looked better, I was swayed by what attracted me to the recipe in the first place - the word Marzipan in the title!

I didn't have the ingredients to follow the recipe exactly - I only had three lemons, but they were very large and I didn't have any ground almonds (how on earth did that happen!), although I did have ground hazelnuts, which I thought might be interesting mixed with the flavour of marzipan. The method looked weird to me - surely beating a cake mixture with an electric mixer after the cubes of marzipan had been added would break them up? There may have been a good reason for doing it this way, but as I couldn't see it, I decided to alter things a little. I beat in two of the eggs with the electric mixer before adding the marzipan, then used a spoon to mix in the other two eggs and the rest of the ingredients. To conserve lemon juice for the drizzle, I only added it at the end, with the flour, and only used enough to give the batter a dropping consistency. That left me with the juice of two and a half large lemons to make the drizzling syrup.

I made the syrup as in the recipe, including the amaretto, and although it seemed quite a large volume for the cake to absorb, it did all go in with only a slight hint of moisture escaping out of the bottom of the springform tin. As I didn't have any more lemons to make the glacé icing and decoration, and was in two minds whether I wanted any topping at all, I used a smaller amount of icing sugar and a tablespoon or two of the drizzling syrup to make a glacé icing, which I drizzled over the cold cake. There was enough to pipe a thicker band of glacé around the edge of the cake, which I then sprinkled with chopped toasted hazelnuts.

It wasn't until the cake was cut for serving that I realised why the marzipan was beaten into the cake - it looked as if nearly all of it had sunk to the bottom of the cake, where it made a sticky, but very tasty layer. It was probably meant to be broken up into smaller pieces by the beaters, and then either melt into the cake or stay suspended in the batter!

Apart from this minor fault, the cake was delicious; it was moist, but not as wet as I had feared, and still light in texture, despite the volume of drizzling syrup absorbed. Using the zest of three large lemons gave the cake an intensely lemon flavour, and the amaretto and hazelnuts added an extra dimension to the overall flavour. In the end, we didn't mind finding nuggets of marzipan at the bottom, but they would have been nicer dispersed throughout the cake. Cutting them smaller next time might be the answer!

PS - if anyone can suggest a recipe for a simple cake where the flavour of lemon is predominant, I'd love to hear from you!