Friday, December 24, 2010

A cupcake for Christmas

I'm writing this to the sounds of happy voices and laughter coming from the kitchen. The aroma of a ham cooking in Nigella's festive mix of cranberry juice, apple juice and all sorts of spices carries in the air. There's snow on the ground outside.

It must be Christmas.

The view from Baile Dháith (the village I live in) on Christmas Eve

I'd love to be in a position to give you all a gift this Christmas but the best I can do is to present you with this recipe for one of the best-selling cupcakes on my stall at yesterday's Christmas market in Dingle. It's a cupcake that I think has all of the festive flavours of Christmas.

It's a Christmas pudding cupcake, a lighter version of its more traditional grown-up relative that bursts with fruity flavour and is topped with brandy butter.

Here's how you make 18 of them.
200g sultanas
140g currants
6 dates
170g unsalted butter at room temperature
255g dark muscovado sugar
3 large eggs
170g self-raising flour
1 medium apple, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp mixed spice
4tbsp rum
  • Place the sultanas, currants and dates in a pan. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes so that the fruits are soft and swollen.
  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Line your muffin tins with paper cases.
  • Beat the butter and sugar together until fully combined.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the flour.
  • Sir in the grated apple, spice, rum and drained fruit.
  • Divide the mixture between the paper cases.
  • Bake for 25 minutes then check that they are cooked by inserting a skewer into the centre.
  • Turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
To make the brandy butter, you need equal amounts of icing sugar and butter and enough brandy to taste.
I used 220g of each, combining them in the food processor (you could use a hand-held whisk) and then I added about 5tbsp of brandy. You can add more or less according to your own taste.
You then need to fill a piping bag with this mixture and pipe it on to the cupcakes. If you've never done this before, here's how you do it. You start from the ouside and work towards the centre in a circular motion. It probably won't look that good first time but you'll get better. I promise!
You can top your cupcake off with a few sultanas for decoration. And then you should have something that looks like this:

This cupcake is brimful of the taste of Christmas and judging from the reactions of my customers and fellow stallholders when they tasted them yesterday, your guests are sure to scoff them.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Snow, Christmas shopping calamities and cake

We hadn't had any snow west of Dingle (until some started to fall this morning) so when we decided to go shopping in Killarney on Saturday afternoon, it was our first encounter with the fluffy white stuff that has been the main topic of conversation in Ireland for weeks.

Driving along, we couldn't help but marvel at how snow transforms the countryside and makes you look at familiar landscapes with newly appreciative eyes.

Who would have thought that Inch Beach could be covered in snow?

Or that we would witness this romantic scene in the fog at Keale?

We arrived in Killarney feeling exhilirated (partly from a child-like sense of joy at seeing the landscape transformed into a winter wonderland and partly from the relief of not having skidded on the dangerously icy roads).
We then set about doing some Christmas shopping. We must have gone into almost every shop in town but failed to find what we wanted. Hours later, we had only one measly DVD in our shopping bag and our initial sense of exhiliration had deflated.
We needed sustenance and decided to decamp to Miss Courtney's Tearooms on College Street in the hopes of finding it there...
We started to perk up as soon as we set foot inside. Who wouldn't when presented with a spread such as this?

There were mince pies. There were cupcakes. Lemon drizzle cake. Chocolate cake. Coffee cake. Blueberry slices. Chocolate and strawberry kisses (what looked like chocolate cake topped with strawberry cheesecake and chocolate icing). Homemade scones. Chocolate and brandy cake. And more. SO MUCH MORE.

I'd heard lots of good things about these tearooms and my expectations were high. Would they be met? And more importantly, would the cakes cure us of our despondent mood?

My first impressions were good. The décor is endearingly higgledy-piggledy with its mismatched chairs, vintage crockery and all sorts of personalised little touches such as this window seat:

And this adorable teacup chandelier:

Here's the honey pot, salt and pepper set and sugar bowl that was on our table:
And finally, here's what we ordered. My boyfriend had a traditional cream tea (he's a sucker for that classic combination of scones, jam and clotted cream). I had a slice of the flourless chocolate and brandy cake. We also shared a pot of lapsang souchong tea.
It sure looks great but did it meet our expectations?
The boyfriend thought the scones were warm and crumbly and he liked the clotted cream so much he had to ask for seconds.
And as for the chocolate cake... Anyone who knows me in real life will have realised that I have very (almost impossibly) high standards when it comes to chocolate cake. It has to be moist. It should have real chocolate in it (my preference would be for chocolate with a high cocoa content). And it has to have a balance between the sweetness of the sugar and the bitter hit of cocoa.
This cake had all of this as well as a drenching of brandy. I really couldn't have asked for more.
In fact, so delicious was this sweet treat that we both forgot all about our disastrous shopping trip (until today when we realised that we really had to do something about it. Only three days to go!)
Addendum 24/01/2011: I went to Miss Courtney's Tearooms for cake again this Saturday and though I hate to admit it, I was disappointed. There were no scones for the boyfriend (who had been drooling at the thoughts of a traditional afternoon tea). There were only four cakes to choose from (and my chocolate choice was overly sweet). The staff weren't very attentive. And our tablecloth was quite dirty and stained. I'm not saying that I won't go again (because I definitely will) but my impressions aren't as good as they were on my first visit.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Phase 2 in the mission to convert my boyfriend to curry

Regular readers will remember that I recently reviewed 'I Love Curry' by Anjum Anand. You'll remember how taken I was with the breadth of recipes covered in this book. It has everything from bite-sized appetisers and all sorts of curries (made with vegetables, fish, seafood, poultry and meat) to Indian breads, vegetable side dishes, rice dishes and lots of different dips and raitas.

You'll also remember how I was hoping to use this book to convert my English boyfriend to the appreciation of curry. Despite the fact that he hails from a land where curry is worshipped, this man maintains that he HATES curry.

Chillies? Yuck, he says. Lentils? My tummy can't handle them, he maintains.

I refuse to accept this situation and I am on a mission to show him just how wrong he is about curry. I took my first step towards victory when I cooked Anjum Anand's creamy tomato fish curry last night.

I chose this recipe because it is described as being mild. It seemed easy to cook midweek. And from the glossy picture printed alongside the recipe, it looked delicious. It appeared to be the perfect recipe with which to launch my attack.

I assembled my ingredients and got to work. (The sheer amount of ingredients might lead you to think that this recipe is complicted but rest assured that it isn't. Most of the ingredients are spices and all you need to do with them is measure them and add them to the sauce.)

Ingredients: (to serve 4)

1 tsp turmeric
500g firm white fish steaks (halibut is recommended but I substituted monkfish.)
7tbsp vegetable oil
6 cloves
6 green cardamon pods
12 black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 tomatoes, quartered and seeded (I didn't bother seeding mine)
10g fresh root ginger, peeled weight
6 fat garlic cloves
1/4 to 1/2tsp chilli powder
1tbsp ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4tsp garam masala
2tbsp single cream
Handful of fresh coriander leaves, chopped
  • Rub half the turmeric and a good pinch of salt into the fish and leave to marinate as you cook the sauce.
  • Heat 5tbsp of the oil in a non-stick saucepan. Add the whole spices and the bay leaves and once they have sizzled for 10 seconds, add the onion. Cook until golden brown.
  • Meanwhile, blend the tomatoes, ginger and garlic until smooth, adding a splash of water to help, if needed.
  • Add this paste to the pan with the rest of the spices (except the garam masala) and some salt to taste.
  • Cook over a medium flame, stirring often for 10 to 12 minutes, until the spice mix starts to release oil droplets. (I'd never seen this happen before and was unsure what to expect but you can't miss it.)
  • Reduce the heat and brown the paste for a further 6 minutes to intensify the flavours.
  • Add 500ml water and bring to a boil.
  • Reduce the heat and simmer for 6 or 7 minutes more.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  • Meanwhile, if you're using halibut, it's time to fry the fish. Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan until hot and add the marinated pieces of fish, cooking on both sides for 2 minutes, until golden brown. Add the fish, the garam masala and the cream to the curry and simmer for another 3 minutes while the fish finishes cooking and absorbs the sauce.
  • If you're using monkfish, it doesn't need to be fried. Add it to the curry directly along with the garam masala and the cream and simmer for 5 minutes or so until cooked.
  • Taste, adjust the seasoning and serve scattered with chopped coriander.
I served this with nutty brown rice and some crunchy sugar snap peas.

The verdict? Because the recipe involved frying the whole spices and giving the curry sauce time to develop, there was a real depth of flavour to this dish. Layers upon layers of flavour in fact. I loved it.
And the curry-hating boyfriend? He loved it too!
Curry-hating boyfriend: 0
Sharon (with the help of Anjum Anand): 1
I think this is a war that can be won...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A delicious discovery on a disorganised day

There are times when I am organised. I plan a menu for the entire week, do the bulk of the shopping at the weekend and then buy the fresh food - veggies, fish, meat, etc - as and when I need it.

Unfortunately, sightings of this organised Sharon are few and far between. Much more often, what happens is that six o'clock sees me standing peering into my fridge, wondering what I can rustle up from the assembled ingredients I find before me.

At such times, and its quick recipe finder have been known to come to the rescue. This ingenious tool allows you to type in a list of ingredients, which it then crossreferences against the recipes in its database. For example, if you type in tomatoes and cheese, you get suggestions for countless dishes, everything from goat's cheese cannelloni with cherry tomatoes to cheesy quesadillas with tomatoes.

On one such disorganised day last week, I could only find potatoes, turnips, cabbage and cheese in my (very badly stocked) fridge.

Feeling decidedly uninspired, I turned to the BBC for help once more. I didn't think that even its prodigious catalogue of recipes could create something appetising from such everyday ingredients and was mentally preparing myself to put on my coat and hat and venture out to the shpos when up flashed RUMBLDETHUMPS.

From such a strange (amost fairytale-like) name, an absolutely delicious dish was to come. A simple dish that you could all rustle up at home. A dish that is perfect for these cold winter evenings. A dish that can be partnered with everything from bacon to fish. And I dish that I urge you all to try soon.

Here's how you make it.

600g large potatoes, peeled and chopped into chunks
400g turnip, peeled and chopped into chunks
75g butter
250g savoy cabbage or kale, finely sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
25g cheddar cheese grated

  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.

  • Cook the potatoes and the turnips in a saucepan of salted boiling water until tender. Drain and return to the pan.

  • Heat 50g of the butter in a pan and gently cook the cabbage in the butter for a few minutes until it is tender but still retains its colour.

  • Add the cabbage to the pan with the potatoes and turnips. Add the remaining butter and mash everything together. Season to taste with the salt and pepper.

  • Place in an ovenproof lidded dish and top with the cheese. Cover with the lid and bake for about 30mins. Remove the lid and continue to cook for a further 15mins, until golden on top.

  • Dig in!

  • Friday, December 10, 2010

    I've got a confession to make...

    I've got a confession to make and had better just take a deep breath and blurt it out before I reconsider.

    Here it is. Are you ready?



    It's just that I don't really like Christmas. In fact, I can be a bit of a grinch about it.

    I can already hear the collective intake of breath. Oh, I hear you say. How very Scrooge-like of you.

    In the past, I'd have retaliated with tales of just how stressful Christmas can be. I know so many people who put huge pressure on themselves to produce elaborate meals for large groups of people. So much pressure that they rarely get to enjoy the act of being hosts in their own homes. I also know of many others who spend money they can't afford on gifts for their loved ones.

    All of this can be too much for me. Where's the simplicity? Where's the joy? Where's the rest and relaxation that are so necessary at this the darkest time of year?

    These are the thoughts that came to mind when the theme was announced for December's Irish Foodies' Cookalong. Christmas, I muttered under my breath. Bah humbug to that.

    But I hadn't reckoned on Twitter coming to life with excited outbursts from foodies all over Ireland. Caroline at Bibliocook posted pictures of her star-topped mince pies. There was talk of gingerbread cookies, prawn cocktails and bacon caramelised brussel sprouts. Yum!

    And that was before Jono and Jules started to post about their ginger beer and tangerine-glazed ham, roasted beetroot with horseradish and apple sauce, chili and tangerine-braised lentils and roasted cauliflower with garlic, bay and lemon.

    I started to feel tempted. With all of this talk of delicious food (and even more enticing for me, there was such a spirit of conviviality with everyone talking about the friends they would share these feasts and treats with), I thought it might be time for me to finally embrace the spirit of Christmas
    So, that's what I did. I invited some friends over, threw on some Christmas tunes (John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Sufjan Stevens if you're interested) and mulled up my first ever vat of mulled wine.

    I used Jamie Oliver's recipe which goes something like this:
    2 clementines
    Peel of 1 lemon
    Peel of 1 lime
    250g caster sugar
    6 whole cloves
    1 cinnamon stick
    3 fresh bay leaves
    1 whole nutmeg
    1 whole vanilla pod, halved
    2 star anise
    2 bottles of Chianti (or any preferred bottle of red)

    Start by peeling the lemon, lime and clementines.

    Put the sugar in a large saucepan over a medium heat.

    Add the pieces of peel and squeeze in the juice of both clementines.

    Add the cloves, cinnamon stick, bay leaves and 10 to 12 gratings of nutmeg. (Depending on your fondness for this flavour.)

    Add your halved vanilla pod and stir in just enough wine to cover the sugar.

    Let this simmer until the sugar has dissolved and then bring to the boil.

    Keep on a boil for 4 to 5 minutes, or until you've got a thick syrup.

    When your syrup is ready, turn the heat down to low. Add the star anise and the rest of the wine.

    Gently heat it and after the flavours have been allowed to infuse for 5 minutes or so, ladle it into glasses and enjoy both the spirit and the taste of Christmas.

    One of the nicest things about making mulled wine is that it fills your home with those smells that you can't help associating with Christmas; aromatic spices, zesty citrus fruits and a rich sweetness.
    It also seems to have made something of a convert out of me. If this Christmas involves things such as mulled wine with friends, it may not be such a bad thing after all.

    Merry Christmas everyone!

    Monday, December 6, 2010

    Monsieur Vuong's in Berlin - are these the world's best spring rolls?

    I love Asian food. I love the textures, the freshness, the seafood and the spices. So, when Aoife of recommended I visit Monsieur Vuong's during a recent trip to Berlin, I had to try it out. She was especially keen the spring rolls (I think I remember her calling them "the best spring rolls in the world ever") so I simply had to have them.

    The atmosphere in Monsieur Vuong's is an upbeat one. You walk into a bright room decorated in cheery oranges, pinks and reds. Trendy young Berliners sit at the minimalist wooden tables. There's lots of chatter, great music and, at the back of the restaurant, an aquarium of colourful fish.

    I made a beeline for the fish and spent much of our meal enjoying their comings and goings and trying to attract their attention. (They could have kept me amused for hours!)

    But all this was a mere prelude to the food. We ordered the infamous spring rolls and a bowl of wanton soup.

    The wanton soup wasn't that amazing. While the wanton parcels melted in the mouth, the broth lacked that depth of flavour that makes dishes like this so comforting.

    Uh oh
    , I thought to myself. Have I built my hopes up only to be served a mediocre meal?

    These critical thoughts melted away as soon as I tasted the spring rolls. Aoife might just be right. These are certainly contenders for the BEST SPRING ROLLS IN THE WORLD EVER.

    The pastry was totally different from any other I've tasted. It was super crunchy and had such a hit of umami (I know this is a vague way of describing its flavour but I can't think of any other. The pastry had a savoury depth of flavour that made it much more than a simple casing for the flavours inside.) The ingredients inside - lettuce, prawns, spring onions and herbs - were fresh, crunchy and subtly spiced.
    And then there was the dipping sauce, which was sticky and intense. It set off the spring roll perfectly.
    If you are ever in Berlin and you too would like to taste what might just be the best spring rolls in the world (and the entertaining fish), don't miss Monsieur Vuong's.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010

    Disco divas, political protests and festive foodies: a weekend in Dublin

    A trip to Dublin always leaves me with lots of food for thought. This past weekend's trip was no different, except that I crammed in so much that my thoughts may have been fed more than usual...

    Goldfrapp played the Olympia on Friday. I'd only seen her once before at the Electric Picnic where she'd played a frenetic set full of theatrical flourishes so I had high expectations.
    She more than delivered. Alison Goldfrapp is such a disco diva. Her bleached blonde ringlets, demonic eye make-up, a sparkly leggings and tottering platforms combo, a wonderfully ethereal white net and harlequin ensemble and stonking beats had the crowd enthralled from start to finish.

    (I coveted those leggings and platforms. I firmly believe that if I had them, my social life would improve by a factor of infinity.)

    Here are some pictures of the show:

    Saturday was a day of protest. Thousands came from all over Dublin and from across the country to voice their anger. There were OAPs and children, trade unionists and the unemployed.

    From what I gathered from people's banners, from talking to those around me and from listening to the speakers outside the GPO, the general sentiments were disillusionment, disappointment, disbelief and, in many cases, despair. How could we have fallen so far so quickly? How could we have been so let down by those we trusted to lead us? And why were they refusing to listen to us now that we no longer trusted them?

    I was expecting such feelings but what I wasn't expecting was the lack of an alternative, of new voices. Everyone spoke about the need for change and how imperative it was to oust Fianna Fáil from government. But nobody could suggest a better option for the future. Everybody agreed that we needed a new way forward but there was little consensus as to what that way forward should be. (I know the likes of Fintan O'Toole are suggesting options but he seems to be far from winning popular support, for now at least.)
    We need to have a national conversation. What do we want Ireland to stand for? How do we make it a fairer place for all?
    We need new voices to be heard, younger, more idealistic voices, voices that come from people who are not born into politically-affiliated families. Where are they? I want to hear them.
    After the protest ended, we switched to bourgeois mode at the Taste of Christmas in the National Convention Centre. I'd been looking forward to this as Heston Blumenthal was appearing at it and I love his playful attitude to food. But - hmm, how shall I put this? - the event didn't quite live up to my expectations.
    My heart sank when I saw Hector Ó hEochagáin. I know lots of people find him hilarious but his exaggerated persona (almost a stage Irishness) rankles with me. He was MC for the show.
    His first act was to call on celebrity chef Gino D'Acampo. I had only heard of Gino before I saw him on Saturday so I don't know what he is like on TV. On stage, however, I found him quite offensive. He really played up the idea of the macho Italian male - grabbing his crotch as he mentioned Italian meat, choosing good looking women in the audience and kissing them lingeringly on the mouth and inviting a pretty woman up on to the stage and instructing the camera to zoom in on her bum (something she was obviously uncomfortable with).
    Most of the audience were laughing heartily at this so I'm obviously in the minority when I say that I found this offensive. Do you think I was being oversensitive?
    Gino cooked spaghetti with homemade pesto sauce and was then joined on stage by Kevin Dundon who told us how to prepare the perfect turkey with two types of stuffing: sausage meat and breadcrumbs with sage. I like Kevin so this part didn't make me grit my teeth!
    Next up was Franc of 'Brides of Franc' fame. I can laugh at Franc because he is so knowingly camp. His take on a festive table setting was sparkly, shiny and completely OTT - just as you'd expect.

    Then it was Heston's turn. He didn't cook but instead he spoke about how he first became interested in food and what/who influenced him - a family trip to the south of France, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Provence, crickets chirping, fields of lavender and food being one element in a multi-layered sensory experience all featured in the tale.

    He spoke carefully and seriously and I could have listened to him all day. But next in line was Oliver Dunne of Bon Appétit and Malaysian chef Jennie Cook who created unusual Christmas desserts. Jennie prepared a sticky spicy fruit kebab with coconut and pandan leaf while Oliver created a concoction of cookies, chocolate, cream and booze.

    The show ended with a performance from two barmen who make cocktail shaking into an art. I can't remember what they were called but we were told they were from Manchester and that they'd provided the drinks at Simon Cowell's 50th birthday party. Judging from their juggling and jiving while they mixed the drinks, it must have been one hell of a party.

    After the show, we wandered around the various stalls and sampled some food. A particular highlight was a crab creme brulée with pickled cucumber and toast from The Tannery. The creamy richness of the crab was offset by the tangy sourness of the pickle and the crunch of the toast - perfect.
    However, there was something about this whole event that didn't ring true with me. I felt as though it fetishised food too much. Everyone was ooh-ing and aah-ing over the tiniest morsels of culinary perfection and salivating over the latest kitchen gadgets but somehow it felt distanced from what food really is. There wasn't any sense of food as sustenance, something that brings people together and something that is actually quite simple. This event felt too competitive, too stressful and too try-hard - everything that I think food shouldn't be.
    By the end of the day, it was snowing, something that rarely happens in Dingle so here's a picture of me enjoying it.

    I know there's not much that's food-related in this post but as I said at the beginning, this trip to Dublin certainly left me with a lot of food for thought.
    (By the way, most of the photos here are by my boyfriend, Richard Smallwood - the REAL photographer of the family.)