June 2010


Some things are best left to the experts, right? Dentistry, piloting a plane, and anything involving electricity are the examples that spring to mind, along with, for me, tortillas. Paul is so good at making them that it had never occurred to me to try it out for myself. But what if he wasn’t around on the one day a tortilla craving struck? I needed to overcome my fear and tackle it for myself.

The best tortilla I’ve ever had in a restaurant was at the bar at Moro, so naturally I turned to their recipe for help. Apparently the secret is to cook two finely sliced Spanish onions very slowly, until soft and golden, and the potatoes should be deep-fried in simmering sunflower oil without colouring. (At this point, the whole tortilla idea was starting to look a lot less straightforward than I’d anticipated.) The oil from the onions is strained and used for frying the tortilla itself; six beaten eggs, seasoned, combined with the sweet, golden onions and 700g tenderly deep-fried potatoes (choose a waxy variety to ensure that they hold their shape).

The tortilla will cook pretty quickly – just three to five minutes on the first side and another three once turned. Flipping anything requires the sort of nerves and steely determination in which I am sadly lacking, but somehow I managed it with the help of a plate and oven gloves. Don’t even think about trying to flip it like a pancake. Once firm and golden brown, slide on to a plate and leave to cool a little before cutting into wedges and serving.

It turns out that I can make a pretty decent tortilla after all, even if my kitchen is now swimming in oil and I’ve eaten my egg quota for the week already. We ate it with Syrian fattoush from Moro East (and, I must confess, a dollop of my homemade chilli jam).

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My last attempt to make chilli jam was not the most comfortable of experiences. Nigella’s recipe is very straightforward, but I’d failed to take into account just how sensitive my hands could be when cutting up fifteen red chillies. Eight hours later, attempting to sleep with my still-burning left hand in a bowl of cold water to ease the agony, no tasty condiment seemed worth the bother. However, I can report with relief that whatever urban myths you may have heard about sleeping with your hand in water are indeed false.

But maybe it’s the same sort of thing described by women who’ve given birth – you forget the pain afterwards, when you’ve got the product of your not-inconsiderable labours to show for it. This is why, on a hungover Sunday afternoon and armed with some of those gloves that make you feel like a forensic investigator, I found myself hacking up chillies yet again. Once roughly chopped, they are whizzed up in the food processor along with an equal quantity of red peppers, before being added to jam sugar dissolved in cider vinegar. Next comes a good ten minutes’ boiling, during which time the mixture creeps dangerously close to the top of the pan, then forty minutes’ cooling before ladling into sterilised jars and handing out to your nearest and dearest if you can bear to.

Cross your fingers now

My one problem with Nigella’s recipe is that she tells you to use jam sugar, an easy-to-use mixture of sugar and pectin. She says that this saves you the trouble of boiling up pectin-rich fruit and straining them to extract the setting agent for your jelly, but I find that the jam sugar gives a consistency much more akin to chilli sauce than a jelly. An effective middle way is to buy sachets of pectin (Tate & Lyle sell them in packs of three) – it’s simple enough to mix this with normal granulated sugar and the juice of a lemon and use this in the recipe for a much better set.

Chilli jam (adapted from Nigella Christmas) – makes around 1.5 litres, or 6 x 250ml jars

150g long fresh red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
150g red pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
1kg jam sugar (or 1kg granulated sugar, mixed with a sachet of pectin and the juice of a lemon)
600ml cider vinegar

  1. Sterilise your jars by washing in very hot soapy water, rinsing clean and drying in a
    140°C oven.
  2. Put the cut-up chillies into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Add the chunks of red pepper, and pulse again until finely chopped into flecks of red.
  3. Dissolve the sugar in the vinegar in a large, wide pan, without stirring.
  4. Add the chilli and pepper mixture. Bring to the boil, then leave at a boil for ten minutes.
  5. Take the pan off the heat and leave to cool for around 40 minutes, until the flecks of chilli and pepper are evenly distributed in the mixture rather than sitting on the top. Spoon into the sterilised jars, and seal tightly.

If you find yourself voting in this year’s Observer Food Monthly awards, you may notice that this year there’s a category for the best food blog. (Almost) every fibre of my being protests against this blatant act of self-promotion, but dammit I’m going to ask anyway… maybe, just maybe, you could consider voting for the humble blog you’re now reading? You can vote in the awards here, and I promise it won’t take you long. I thank you.

It’s entirely my own fault, but I’m feeling pretty delicate today. If I’m not going to leave the house and do something useful, I generally turn to baking as a way to get the sense of achievement that normal people get from doing a bit of gardening (or whatever it is they do on a Sunday). I’d bought some buttermilk earlier this week, intending to make some of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s savoury muffins from last week’s Guardian Weekend magazine, and today seemed as good a day as any. (You can consult Hugh’s article and recipes here.)

I decided to make a variation on the red onion, cheddar, and bacon muffins, leaving out the bacon, replacing the cheddar with cubed feta, and adding a handful of toasted pine nuts. I also replaced half of the specified 250g wholemeal self-raising flour with its white equivalent, wanting to avoid that worthy heaviness at all costs. It wasn’t a risk worth taking today.

Apart from a moment when I absent-mindedly licked a spoonful of the mixture and was shocked to discover that it’s just not the same when it’s not cake batter, I didn’t encounter any problems. The muffins are pretty tasty too, especially warm from the oven. My only issue with them is that once cooked and removed from their paper cases, a thick layer of muffin remains stubbornly stuck to the paper. Perhaps more melted butter in the mixture might solve this – further experiments in muffin-making will have to be conducted.

In spite of loving Ladurée’s delectably jewel-coloured macaroons, it had never crossed my mind to attempt to emulate them at home until yesterday. But flicking through my trusty Ottolenghi cookbook with the aim of finding something suitably small and sweet to take along to a dinner, the lime and basil macaroon recipe jumped out at me. They seemed unusual and pretty enough to make an interesting contribution to the meal, but tiny enough not to overwhelm or impose. An enormous part of the appeal was the fact that I hadn’t promised to take anything, which removed pretty much all of the pressure when constructing the delicate morsels; if they went horribly wrong, I could just eat the mess at home and no-one would be any the wiser.

As it happened, they were fairly straightforward. I made the filling first: a simple buttercream with plenty of lime zest and juice beaten in, along with some finely chopped basil leaves. The biscuit mix was also quick and easy, especially with the help of an electric whisk: egg whites and caster sugar are whisked into a meringue mix, which is then folded into icing sugar and ground almonds, along with more lime zest and chopped basil. The only fiddly bit is creating similar-sized blobs of the mixture on the baking parchment-lined tray (I don’t get on well with piping bags, probably due to lack of practice, but a teaspoon did the job). After a 15-minute rest, they go into the oven for about 12 minutes (they needed 16 in my oven) before cooling, filling, and leaving to firm up.

I’d have to say, cautiously, that my first foray into macaroon-making was fairly successful… they seemed to go down well, even at the end of a long meal of many, many boozy courses. I particularly liked how zingy the buttercream filling was – it contained enough lime juice to make combining the ingredients a job for a powerful mixer (or a strong beating arm). Ottolenghi’s recipe gives you more buttercream than you need, so I’ve made a second half-batch of macaroons today. Somehow, this seems more acceptable than just eating the buttercream from the bowl.

Lime and basil macaroons (adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)

110g icing sugar
60g ground almonds
2 free-range egg whites
40 caster sugar
5 large basil leaves, finely chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lime

For the buttercream filling:
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
45g icing sugar
juice and finely grated zest of 1 lime
5 large basil leaves, finely chopped

1. Make the filling first: beat the butter and icing sugar together until pale and light. Beat in the lime juice and zest and the chopped basil until well mixed – it’ll seem like a lot of juice, but if you keep mixing it will go into the butter eventually. Cover the mixture with cling film and leave in a cool place (not in the fridge).

2. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Sieve the icing sugar and almonds together into a large, clean mixing bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites and caster sugar together until you have a nice firm (but not dry) meringue. Fold this mixture gently into the icing sugar/almond mixture, a third at a time; make sure each batch is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next one. Continue until it’s all added and the mixture is smooth and glossy, then fold in the basil and lime zest.

4. Take a couple of large baking sheets, putting tiny blobs of the macaroon mixture here and there to stick down a piece of baking parchment on each tray. (Depending on the size of your trays and the efficiency of your oven, you’ll probably need to bake several batches of the macaroon.)

5. You can use a piping bag to create two-pound-coin-sized discs of the mixture on the baking parchment, but it’s easy enough to do this with a teaspoon. Try to keep the discs as uniform as possible; you’ll need to pair them up once they’re baked, which is far, far easier if you do this bit carefully. Leave plenty of space between the blobs to avoid unsightly merging in the oven.

6. Tap the underside of each tray once it’s covered with macaroon blobs – this will smooth them out and help them to spread. Leave the trays out, uncovered, for 15 minutes before baking.

7. Bake each tray of macaroons in the preheated oven for 12 minutes, but they might take a little longer (they took 16 minutes in my oven, for what it’s worth). They’re ready when they come off the paper easily with a palette knife, but don’t lift them off the paper altogether when they’re still warm, as this seems to make them collapse. Leave the biscuits to cool down completely.

8. Pair the macaroons up, and sandwich the pairs together with a blob of buttercream filling (squeeze them together as gently as possible). Leave them at room temperature to set. You can chill them to speed this up, but let them come to room temperature before serving.

 

I suppose I should admit that although I have been cooking plenty of things from the new Ottolenghi book (see ‘A Woman with a Plan’, below), finding the time to write about them has been more of a challenge. I really need to get back into the habit; it doesn’t help that my camera’s broken.

Anyway, I accidentally had a dinner party last night. It wasn’t in my usual style, which involves planning for weeks and keeping the night before free for cooking (and the night before that for shopping). Finding myself in possession of some actual ingredients, for a change, and with my friend Claire coming round to join Paul and me for the France/Uruguay match and a bite to eat, I decided to whip up some spaghetti with homemade pesto, followed by Nigel Slater’s hot chocolate puddings. It might have been nutritionally deficient – although doesn’t basil count as one of your ‘five a day’? It’s green, after all – but it did the job.

I usually make pesto by blitzing the ingredients in my mini food-processor, but Paul gets great results following Jamie Oliver’s advice from The Naked Chef: bashing it all up in a pestle and mortar is the way to get the best flavour from the basil, apparently. Jamie recommends a quarter clove of garlic, chopped (although I used a whole small clove), bashed up with three good handfuls of fresh basil. You’d be amazed how quickly the leaves reduce down to almost nothing when pounded… I think I’d make a double quantity next time. Next, add a handful of lightly toasted pine nuts, and continue to bash. (This is when you realise that your pestle and mortar is entirely inadequate in size.) A good handful of grated Parmesan goes in next, with enough olive oil to bind the sauce, and then seasoning. I know I should be using vegetarian Parmesan, by the way, but cheese has always been the weak point in my otherwise pretty strict vegetarianism. I really should look into the vegetarian Parmesan alternatives. I’m not a giant hypocrite, honest.

Tossed with hot spaghetti, the pesto made quite a tasty supper. For me, the downside of bashing rather than blitzing is that the basil leaves are wilted but stay almost intact rather than being chopped to a pulp, so the basil bit of the sauce doesn’t coat every strand of pasta as a more conventionally made pesto would. Still nice, though.

As more beer was drunk, a pudding seemed more and more necessary. Nigel Slater’s hot chocolate puddings (from The Kitchen Diaries) have been a favourite of mine for a few years now – it seems such a luxurious treat to have a hot chocolate pudding, but it really doesn’t take many ingredients or much time to make them. With dark chocolate (it’s worth going for the best you can get – I made up the total with Green & Black’s and some M&S Easter chocolate I still had in the house, for some reason), eggs, caster sugar, butter, and a drop of chocolate hazelnut spread, along with maybe half an hour maximum, you’re all done. Yum. The recipe serves four, which gave me the perfect excuse to have one for breakfast.