Saturday, January 29, 2011

A birthday girl needs cake

Today is a friend's birthday. This is good news for her but it's also good news for me. I now have an excuse to try my first recipe from 'Bake & Decorate' by Fiona Cairns. I've had this cookbook for a few weeks but in an attempt to be virtuous for the month of January, I've been studiously avoiding the temptation of the recipes contained inside.

This is coming to an end right now because I'm going to bake this cake, a flourless chocolate hazelnut cake:

This cake ticks all of my boxes.
Gooey, moist chocolate?
Yes, yes, yes.
Gooey, moist chocolate with chocolate ganache and raspberries?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES...!

Here's the recipe:
Ingredients for the cake:
90g unsalted butter, cubed
60g blanched hazelnuts
150g chocolate, 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces
90g golden caster sugar
3 eggs, separated

Ingredients for the ganache:
100g chocolate, 70% solids, broken into pieces
50ml double cream
25g unsalted butter
400g raspberries
  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
  • Butter a 20cm round cake tin and line the base with baking parchment.
  • Roast the hazelnuts in the oven for 5 mins or so. (Watch carefully to make sure they don't burn.)
  • Cool the hazelnuts and grind finely in a food processor.
  • Place the chocolate, 70g of the sugar and the butter in a bowl over gently simmering water (make sure the bowl is not touching the water) and melt together very gently.

  • Remove from the heat and stir in the hazelnuts.
  • Beat the egg yolks together until they change to a paler colour, something like this:
  • Then add them to the cooled chocolate mixture.
  • In another (very clean) bowel, whisk the egg whites and then slowly add the remaining caster sugar until the mixture forms soft peaks.
  • Take a large spoonful and fold it into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a little.
  • Then fold in all of the remaining egg whites as gently and as lightly as you can, using either a large metal spoon or a spatula.
  • Pour into the tin and bake for 20 mins.
  • Leave to cool for 15 mins then run a knife around the edges to loosen it from the tin.
  • When the cake is cool, turn it very carefully out onto a serving plate, using the base as the top.
  • To make the ganache, melt the chocolate, cream and butter in a bowl over very gently simmering water (again making sure it doesn't touch the water). Stir together and then cool a little until it thickens.
  • Pour over the cake and spread with a palette knife.
  • Stud the surface with raspberries and you should have something that looks like this:
Yum! Now to deliver it to the birthday girl...

(This cake is very easy to make. It's ready in next to no time. The fact that it's flourless means that it's suitable for people on gluten-free diets. I'll definitely be making more from this cookbook.)

Addendum: In fact, I liked this cake so much that I made it for my boyfriend within 24 hours of delivering it to the birthday girl. This time, I omitted the butter from the ganache and I thought it worked better. I don't know if anyone else finds this but every time I make ganache with butter in it, the butter separates and forms a not-very-attractive film on top. Anyone got any ideas why this might be?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Eat magazine: further proof of life, talent and passion in Irish food

Irish cuisine... Now there's a thought. But is it an appetising one?

For far too long, the very mention of Irish food conjured images of bacon and cabbage, served with the requisite bowl of boiled potatoes. But this is no longer the case. The food culture of Ireland and the attitude towards food and cooking have changed. So much so that Le Guide du Routard, the long-time travel bible of the French-speaking world recently praised Ireland's restaurants for their combination of quality food, value and service. They even went so far as to say that the restaurant experience in Ireland often surpasses what's on offer in France.

Those of us who take an interest in Ireland's foodie scene will agree that it has improved drastically, although there is still a long way to go. There are wonderful restaurants, some - such as the Cliff House in Waterford - serving Michelin-starred food and others - such as L Mulligan Grocer in Dublin - serving more homely fare.
There are fabulous food producers, including the Ferguson family in West Cork who create Gubbeen cheeses and cured meats and Benoit Large who makes melt-in-the-mouth chocolates in Kenmare.

We've now got a foodie magazine which aims to let people know about the changing food culture of Ireland. Its first issue was published recently. It's currently only a one-man operation but I think that it - just like Ireland's food culture - has huge potential.

Check it out here:

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Food: much more than what's on your plate

We all have our likes and dislikes when it comes to food. Some hate broccoli. Others loathe olives. There are even people who don't like chocolate. (I know. If I hadn't personally met one of these people, I wouldn't believe this could be true either.)

This photo of my stash shows that I'm obviously not of their strange tribe.

What I'm also beginning to realise is that many of us also have our own philosophies when it comes to food. We've all heard of people who only eat food that's seasonal, local or organic. We know people who choose to be vegetarians or vegans. Perhaps none of these labels applies to you but I'll bet that as you learn more about food, cooking and what you like and dislike; you too will develop a philosophy of your own.
I certainly think this is happening to me...

From the moment we are first introduced to solid food as babies, we begin to make our way through a world of flavours, discovering what it is that we do and don't like.

I was a pretty easy child to feed. The only things I didn't like were dried fruits (which meant my mother's fruitcakes and currant scones were and still are off the menu) and vinegar on chips (we didn't eat chips that often when I was a child and I still remember one occasion in a neighbour's house being so excited that she was making us chips and then bursting into tears when she served them already doused in vinegar!).

The food I ate as a child came mostly from my family's farm and was what I would consider traditionally Irish. Beef stew, bacon and cabbage, lamb chops in gravy,steak, roast chicken, roast legs of lamb (for special occasions) and Dingle mutton pies... All were served with potatoes and vegetables (onions, cabbages, carrots, parsnips, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) from the farm.

We also had neighbours who were fishermen and would share their surplus catch with us. This meant that at certain times of year, it was common for us to have salmon, mackerel and haddock for our dinner.

Before you think we were ahead of our time eating organically and seasonally, I have to say this diet was supplemented with foods my parents considered modern such as Angel Delight (a Sunday treat) and a lemon meringue pie that came in powdered form and had to be reconstituted with water (!).
My attitude to food began to change when I started to work as a waitress during the school holidays. Slowly, I became aware of the endless possibility offered by food and the importance of using the best quality ingredients. I also began to gain a new respect for traditional Irish foods and recipes. (So often, people think that Ireland has no cuisine of its own but this isn't true. I once worked with a chef who used to serve a version of Irish stew that contained seaweed as a thickening agent and that came from a 9th century recipe used by Irish monks.)

One particular encounter with a chef changed my attitude to food drastically. Although she worked in a kitchen that served meat and fish, she was a committed vegetarian. She was passionate about her beliefs and never missed an opportunity to try to convince people to follow her example. (Just in case you're wondering: she wasn't preachy when she did this. She was actually quite funny about it.)

I had been moving away from meat for a while by that stage. As a university student, I could rarely afford to buy meat in the shops so finances dictated that my diet was dominated by vegetables. There were occasional meat fests though such as when my dad would send up steaks for me and my friends or when a friend's mum would arrive with a chicken for us to roast for dinner. At that time, I regarded meat as a luxury. What little of it I ate was organically produced and was shared with friends for a special occasion. Happy times!

By the time I was 19 however, I had become a vegetarian. My father was not pleased but I vowed not to eat any meat or fish- not even his steak - ever again.

I held firm until I moved to France aged 21. I'd lived in Normandy previously as a student, where I'd been shocked to see French students eating lasagne and burgers from vending machines (I'm still horrified at the thought of that! I'd had such high expectations of the French and their cuisine.)

This time, I was living in a small village in the mountains near Toulouse where I was teaching English in the local secondary school. As a foreigner, I was a great novelty in the village and as a result, I was invited to dinner very often. I was delighted by this but there was one aspect that began to bother me: the inevitable reaction I would get as soon as I mentioned my vegetarian diet. Their faces would fall and I would see them mentally wishing they could retract their invitations.

I can't remember how long this went on for but after a while, I started to reassess my priorities. After all, food is about more than what you eat. The social aspect of sharing it with others is important too and I didn't want to miss out on that. So I decided to compromise and eat fish. This was something the French seemed to be able to understand and we all got along much better after that - apart from a few pangs of conscience on my part.

This is Saint Affrique, the vegetarian-phobic but lovely French village that was my home in 1999/2000:
There were occasional hiccups though. One weekend, my friend Claudine invited me to spend a few days at her husband's parents' farm in the countryside. The place was a revelation to me. These people were living the self-sustainable dream. Everything that was served at their table was made on their farm. They grew their own fruits and vegetables. They made their own cheese, butter and yoghurts. They made their own wines and liqueurs (including a walnut drink that I savour the memory of to this day). They also slaughtered their own meat.

In fact, they were so excited to have me to stay with them for the weekend that they had slaughtered a goose, a goose that was to be served that evening along with homemade foie gras. What could I do? They had gone to so much effort on my behalf and they were so excited about sharing the fruits of their labours with me that I simply had to tuck in.

Another event that was to have a huge impact on my relationship with food was moving in with my boyfriend. I once interviewed Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe about her life in food and one of her comments has stayed with me since. She said that had she not married a man who had high standards when it came to the food he ate, she might never have become a good cook. This might not sound like the most feminist thing to say but I think there is some truth in her comment. I enjoyed cooking and experimenting with recipes long before I moved in with my boyfriend but having someone to cook for - especially someone who appreciates good food - makes you try harder. As a single girl, particularly when I lived on my own, my evening meals would often consist of easy-to-cook pasta dishes rotated throughout the week. Now, I try to have much more variety.

Meeting other people who are interested in food, reading food blogs and talking to the foodies who write them, dining in great restaurants and experimenting with cookbooks has shaped my attitude to food too.

I'm currently reading four books that are chiming with the way I now think about food.

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, which I've written about previously, is feeding the experimental cook inside me. Her musings on flavours that go together (liver and apple or chocolate and bacon) are encouraging me to throw caution to the wind and take a more intuitive approach to cooking.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a real eye opener. Although it focusses on farmers and food producers in America, what it has to say about modern industrial farming practices should terrify us all. Although I am only one third of the way through it, I am already much more aware of what I eat, where it comes from and - most especially - the tricks employed by food companies to make you think that what you are eating is natural/healthy/artisan/etc. It makes me all the more convinced that here in Ireland we should focus on developing a food culture that is natural and wholesome and grown, raised and produced with minimal interference.

The third book on my bedside table is Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford. I was ill for a while last year and although I always tried to eat healthily, I now have an even greater awareness of just how important the food we eat is. This book is a treasure trove of ancient wisdom and I'm learning a huge amount about food and how it can be used to not only keep you happy but healthy too.

Finally, there's The French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney. This book is all about seasonal food cooked simply and eaten with friends, which - to be honest - has to be the best way of eating, doesn't it?

It was my birthday last weekend and I went to Killarney to celebrate. At one stage, I was sipping prosecco and perusing a menu in a restaurant (it was a GREAT birthday!), when I realised that my attitude to food had changed. I was very aware of ingredients and of the implications of descriptions such as 'corn-fed' actually meant. I was looking for seasonality. I no longer felt as strongly about vegetarianism as I once did (now I believe that what's important is that the meat we eat should be from animals raised in a natural and ethical way. I rarely eat meat myself as my body appears to have developed an aversion to it but I am not opposed to eating it on principle).

Most importantly of all, I was glad to be sharing good food with someone I loved.

Food is certainly about what is on your plate but it's about much more than that. It's about the memories you have of childhood and the associations you create with certain flavours (though I no longer hate the taste of vinegar on chips, it will always taste of disappointed tears to me). It's also about the people you meet and what they teach you. Late last year, an Israeli friend of mine cooked me nettle soup with nettles she'd collected from her garden. A keen forager with an interest in the medicinal qualities of plants; I can tell I've got a lot to learn from her.

Food: it's a lifelong journey.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I love cake

I love making (and eating!) cakes. I've always loved them and the reason for this is not just because they taste great (although they do). It's because I love seeing that greedy look that comes into people's eyes when they spy a luscious chocolate cake. I love the way so many people feebly protest that they simply shouldn't before digging into a slice of cake, licking their plate clean and then asking for seconds.

I also love the way that cakes are a treat. I love that they are special; that people celebrate with cakes; that people use cakes (especially cupcakes) as a pick-me-up when they are feeling down; and that turning up at someone's house with a cake makes you especially welcome.
I suppose a lot of this goes towards explaining why I set up a cupcake and sweet treats stall at Dingle's Farmers' Market, where I make cupcakes like this:

As a result, I'm delighted with the current fashion for baking. I've been tuning in to Lorraine Pascale's 'Baking Made Easy' on BBC1 (where she truly does make baking cakes, bread and tarts seem simple). I've tried her lemon cream millefeuilles which were delicious.

So, you can imagine how delighted I was to receive an advance copy of 'Bake and Decorate' by Fiona Cairns in the post. What a perfect cookbook for me!

Like Lorraine's TV show, this book aims to show even the most inexperienced of bakers how to create delicious tasting and wonderful looking cakes. From fruitcakes to chocolate chilli cupcakes, Fiona shares techiques and tricks to make it all seem easy.

I'd never heard of Fiona Cairns before and immediately wanted to know who she was. This is her first cookbook but she is a very experienced baker. Her company produces 750,000 (!) cakes a year for the likes of Waitrose, Liberty, the Ritz Hotel, Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason in the UK. She has also been commissioned to make cakes for Bono, Sinéad O'Connor and Paul McCartney. Ooh er!

So, is her cookbook any good? My first impressions are positive and I love the girly cover. I'm also taken by her introduction where she talks about the comfort, pleasure and luxury of baking; how cakes are not essential but are vital for our souls. (She sounds like a woman after my own heart.)

She also brings back some of my first memories in the kitchen; memories of helping my mother bake cakes, hoping I'd get to lick the batter off the wooden spoon. In a family of seven children, this was a hotly-contested treat!

Fiona aims to bring pleasures like this back to our lives. She wants to make baking and decorating cakes as enjoyable as the eating of them and she encourages even the least confident among us to give it a try.

You can start with something simple, like a Victoria sponge or a no-cook chocolate tiffin. Follow the instructions carefully (baking is a precise science) and you'll soon discover that you can do it.

You can then move on to more elaborate creations. There's a range of chocolate cakes (because you simply can't have enough chocolate cake recipes!) including a dark chocolate mousse cake and this wonderful flourless chocolate hazelnut cake:

There are other tempting treats too such as white chocolate and cardamom rosewater sponge, sticky ginger cake with lime buttercream, lemony crunch cake, fruit cakes, pistachio and orange blossom cake and so much more.

There are also cupcakes. I'm eager to try the sticky toffee cupcake with salted caramel buttercream and the mint chocolate cupcakes.

And that's not all. There are also recipes for macaroons, meringues, biscuits and shortbread.

The first half of the book is devoted to baking while the second gives you tips on decorating. This includes everything from how to apply fondant smoothly and how to make crystallised flowers and leaves to how to use gold leaf and lots of ideas for using nuts, flowers, sweets and ribbons.

At several stages in the book, Fiona shares tips and advice. She recommends using golden caster sugar instead of white for flavour (something I always do in my own cupcakes). She says that you should always use ingredients and equipment that is warm or at least at room temperature. And she even gives advice on saving the inevitable disasters.

I've earmarkeed several pages in this book already but first on my list are the sticky toffee and salted caramel cupcakes followed by the chocolate mousse cake. I'll keep you posted on my progress!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How to cook

How do I start cooking?

This was the plaintive cry for culinary help that came from a friend who visited over Christmas. It was a cry I couldn’t ignore so I told her I’d come up with tips I thought might help.
Now, I could obviously advise her to invest in a cookbook or two, especially ones by the likes of Jamie Oliver who has based his entire career on enticing novice cooks into the kitchen. (Ireland’s own Donal Skehan also appears to be following a similar path.)
But I wanted my advice to be a little more inspiring (and useful) than that...

So, I ditched the cookbooks (figuratively speaking of course) and set to thinking.

My first thought was that my friend should think about what she and her partner like to eat. Are they traditionalists who prefer their dinners to consist of meat/fish with vegetables and potatoes? Do they love pasta and Italian food? Or do they hanker after the sharp and spicy flavours of Asian cooking?

Once she's made a list (on paper or in her head) of the dishes she likes to eat, I would then encourage her to try cooking some. She could look the recipes up in cookbooks or on websites. I often do this and would particularly recommend the BBC website for ease of use and the sheer range of its recipes (find it here )

My second suggestion would be for her to focus on some basic dishes that include elements she'll end up using again and again. For example, if she learns how to make a lasagne, she'll learn how to make a simple white/cheese sauce - something she'll definitely be cooking again.

This is obviously a subjective list but I think everyone should know how to make:
- A white sauce
- A tomato sauce
- Mashed potato
- Fluffy rice
- Roast chicken
- A good salad dressing (but this, I mean one you like)

What would you add to this list?

Number three: don’t expect to become an expert immediately. You’re bound to make mistakes at the beginning (and even after you’ve been cooking for years, there will still be the occasional disaster!). There is sure to be a certain amount of hit and miss. You’ll probably even burn some things. But don’t worry. It’s all part of the learning process.
Food and cooking is about learning what you like and how you like to cook it. Mistakes are part of that. And sometimes they can even lead to chance discoveries.
(I once made a chocolate cake for a friend’s birthday that failed to rise. Instead of panicking, I iced it with chocolate fudge icing and decorated it with raspberries. Everyone loved it and one person even said it was the best cake they’d ever eaten!)

Number four: Give yourself time to cook. During the week, you probably won’t have much time or energy to make food after coming home from work, so cook something simple. Pasta Puttanesca. Mashed potatoes with pork chops and green beans. Macaroni cheese. Leek and potato soup. Niceoise salad.

All of these are far nicer than any ready meals you might buy in the shops. They are easy and quick to make. And if you live with someone, presenting them with dishes like these to eat midweek will win you lots of brownie points!

At the weekend, you might decide to experiment with something a little more complicated and time consuming. Invite friends over to share a roasted chicken (it might seem like a huge challenge up but a roast is actually more a question of timing than of elaborate culinary skills IMO). Bake a cake (even if it goes wrong, it’ll probably still be yummy. See above!)

Here are some recipes to start you off.
Pasta Puttanesca – who better than the inimitable Nigel Slater to guide you in making this classic?

Pork chops with mangetout and potatoes – I can’t remember where I found this recipe but it’s very popular with the people in my house.

1 pork chop per person
3 tbsp of breadcrumbs per person
1/4 tsp sea salt per person (I use maldon sea salt)
1/2 tsp ground coriander per person
1 tbsp vegetable/groundnut oil
1. Mix the breadcrumbs, sea salt and ground coriander together and spread out on a plate.
2. Turn the pork chop in the breadcrumb mix, pressing it into the mix so that as much as possible of it sticks to the meat.
3. Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the breaded pork chops for four minutes on either side.
4. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes and some of Nigella Lawson's lemony green beans or mangetout (see here)

Leek and potato soup – you'll find a recipe for this in my winter warmer's post of November 25th.

Niceoise salad: this is more a question of assembling quality ingredients than anything else
Salad greens
200g green beans *
2 handfuls of black olives, stoned
8 Anchovy fillets
1 green pepper, chopped into bite-sized chunks
1 tin of tuna (I prefer mine in oil instead of brine but that’s a question of taste)
2 boiled eggs (I boil mine for 8 mins from cold so that the yolk is still a little gooey)

*All of the quantities in this recipe can be adjusted to taste.

1. Boil the beans until they are tender but still retain a bite (3 to 4 mins). Cool.
2. Strain the tuna and mix with the green beans, salad greens, stoned black olives and chopped pepper.
3. Peel and quarter the eggs and place on top of the salad along with the anchovy fillets.
4. Eat with the dressing of your choice, some baby potatoes or some crusty bread. Yum!

Over to you, fellow cooks. What other advice would you have for someone who is wary of cooking but really wants to learn?

(Karen, I hope this helps!)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Don't be frightened. It'll be fun. I promise.

Last week, I put an ad in the West Kerry advertiser (a freesheet that brings news of what's happening to the people of the Dingle Peninsula), trying to drum up interest in my latest project: the Dingle Supper Club.

I've had various responses to it in the meantime, some of which have been positive and interested but others which have been very wary of the whole idea. So, I need your help.

The idea behind the club is to meet new people and share good food while doing so.
Here's how I'm expecting it to work:
If you want to join, you get in touch with me and tell me that you (as a single person or with your partner or a friend) are willing to cook for X amount of people in your home. X can be anything from two people upwards. You also need to tell me if you have any dietary restrictions.
Then the fun begins...

On one occasion, you cook for your chosen number of guests but you will not know who they are until they arrive. They will know who you are but they won't know who the other guests will be so there will be a surprise in store for everyone.

On the other occasions,you will be the guest, eating in other people's homes and meeting a surprise selection of different guests.

The idea of this club is to meet new people and have fun. All you have to do is cook dinner on one occasion and you'll then be treated to enjoyable evenings out in other people's homes. The aim is not competitive. Everyone is supposed to enjoy each occasion, even the person cooking on the night. So, I'm urging people not to stress too much over their menus and to just cook what they think is good.

So, here's where I need your help. Some people - well five since the ad came out on Friday - are very enthusiastic but others, while excited by the idea, are reluctant to be involved.
They don't like the idea of being tied to something, even though I've made it clear in the ad that you sign up for each month's event on a monthly basis. Just because you come along once doesn't mean that you are obliged to keep coming.
Nor do they like the idea of not knowing who's coming, even though I think that makes it exciting.

How do I drum up more interest? Would you suggest I make changes? And if you'd like to be involved, let me know.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Everyone needs some inspiration at this time of year...

Has normality resumed for you? This morning, we took down our tree, stored the decorations in their boxes for another year and now my boyfriend and I are readying ourselves for the return to work tomorrow. Part of me regrets the passing of the slow, langourous days of Christmas but another part embraces the hopeful start of a brand new year.

Yet another part of me cheers the end of Christmas meals. We had a full house this Christmas and at times the amount of meals that needed to be prepared felt like too much. Turkey. Ham. Stuffing. Brussel sprouts. Mince pies. Chocolate. Chocolate. And more chocolate. Looking back on it, it seems like all I've been doing for the past week is eating food and pondering ways of using up the mounds of meat, potatoes and vegetables that have inevitably been left over after each meal.

You would think that I'd be tired of thinking about food. But I'm not and the credit for this has to go to Niki Segnit, author of 'The Flavour Thesaurus', one of the best books I found in my stocking this Christmas.

I'd been looking forward to getting my hands on this book for quite some time and although I've only read a very small section of it so far, I already know it's going to live up to my expectations.

So, what is a flavour thesaurus, I hear you ask. Judging from what I've read so far, this is a book for people who have browsed through lots of cookbooks and followed many different recipes. People who want to be more creative and adventurous with their food. If you want to be exposed to new flavour combinations and experiment with tastes that you may never even have considered before, this is the book for you.

After all, as Niki Segnit says, who would ever have thought lamb would pair so well with apricots, port with Stilton or foie gras with Sauternes? It required someone with imagination to match these ingredients and teach us all that there could be such a thing as alchemy of flavours.

The book is divided into different taste sections; ranging from roasted to sulphurous, spicy and marine . So far, I've read the roasted section which focuses on chocolate, coffee and peanuts and I'm halfway through the meaty section which features chicken, pork, black pudding, liver, beef and lamb.

It's a very small section of the book but I've already been struck by so many ideas. I'm going to experiment with chocolate, maple syrup and bacon cupcakes. (How do you think these will go down at my stall in Dingle Farmers' Market?) I'm going to try a chocolate cardamom tart (I'm salivating at the thoughts of that already). And I'm even going to try adding chocolate to savoury sauces. This is something they do in Mexico to lend a smooth and slightly bitter undertone of flavour.

I'm not expecting to like everything I try (and I am certainly not tempted by the idea of jugged hare - in whcih the animal is cooked in its own blood with dark chocolate!) but I'm looking forward to having my tastes challenged and to learning some new approaches to food.

This is a book I'd recommend to all of you who may be feeling tired of cooking after the many elaborate meals of Christmas. It's a book that will once again make you feel excited about food and the many wonderful possiblities it can offer.

Here's hoping we all have a very happy, healthy (and flavoursome!) new year.
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