Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quiche born again

Firtst published Canberra Times newspaper 30 March 2011.
I thought I knew how to make a good quiche, and had relegated it to the realms of the mundane. That was until I tried one here in an Alsace, the land where quiche was born. It is often eaten as an entrèe and is found in almost every boucherie and boulangerie in France.

Market morning Chatenois

It was on our arrival in Châtenois on a Tuesday night, late and cold, that we decided to hot-foot it down to the local village square to see if there was anywhere to have a meal. There seemed to be one cafe still open, so we trudged down the couple of stairs from the street, ducked our heads through the low doorway and walked in. It was warm, so we removed our layers of scarves, coats, hats and gloves and we were greeted with a warm ”bonsoir” from a woman, with a serving dish tucked under her arm who appeared to be the owner. When asked in our pidgeon French if she had a table for four, she furiously indicated that we had the wrong person and, as she headed out the door, steered us to the real patroness, Mme Huguette Schneider.

Mme Schneider had been in conversation with another table, a family with boisterous kids, and there were a couple of other single guests at tables. It was clear that this was a cafe for regulars, because the chatting momentarily stopped as we were shown to a table. Given Châtenois isn’t exactly a tourist mecca at this time of year, we appear to have been something of a novelty here. Locals seem unsure if we are English, American, Canadian or Australian, and it seems that it’s impolite to ask.

She brought us the menu which offered only three or four choices and all but one of us chose the quiche. I could see her preparing our meals in the kitchen, and she pulled a large quiche from the fridge and reheated 3 portions in the oven. My mind immediately turned to dried out pastry and leathery eggs but, to my delight, the pastry was buttery and just crisp and the filling creamy, with a hint of nutmeg. Parfait! Alongside the quiche was a fresh, crunchy salad with a light, piquant dressing - a perfect start to our gastronomic adventures in Alsace.

I have since learnt that the pâte brisée (pastry) should be made with salted butter and the migaine (filling) should be made with crème fraiche, but without cheese. Crème fraiche is not used in Australia to the extent it is here in France, so you may need to seek it out in the supermarket or deli. Tradition calls for smoked pork shoulder, but more recently lardons (cubes) of good smoked bacon are used. Controversial I know, but don’t add milk, cheese or salt to the mix as essentially this is a baked custard that should only be just set when removed from the oven. You can add some vegetables such as spinach, onion or peas, however I prefer mine straight to enjoy the delicate balance of flavours.

Pâte brisée (Shortcrust pastry)

200g flour
100g salted butter
pinch of salt

Make the shortcrust pastry by rubbing in the butter to the flour and salt till it resembles a breadcrumb texture. Once this is achieved, add a few tablespoons of cold water until a smooth pastry is formed. Knead lightly and roll out on a floured surface to fill a 28cm tart tin or pie dish. Chill the lined baking tin for 30 minutes, to reduce shrinkage of the pastry when cooked.

Migaine (Filling)

200g of good quality thick smoked bacon, cut into cubes or lardons
70ml of crème fraiche
4 large eggs
pinch of nutmeg, ground
pinch of pepper, ground

Lightly cook the bacon lardons without adding extra fat. Cook until lightly browned then drain on kitchen towel to soak up the fat, then set aside.

In another bowl, beat the eggs and crème fraiche lightly until just mixed and add in the pepper and nutmeg.

Take the chilled tart tin from the fridge and spread the bacon lardons across the base and gently pour the egg mixture in.

Cook in a pre-heated oven at 210C for about 20-25 minutes or until the quiche is lightly browned and the pastry is just crispy. The quiche should still be a little wobbly in the centre.

Serve with a crispy salad with a piquant vinaigrette.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Restaurant Astier

 First published Canberra Times newspaper 22 March 2011.

Astier cheese platter

It’s hard to believe that we are finally here in France - the land where eating, preparation and foraging for food is almost an art form.

If the main course was to be our three month home exchange in Alsace, it was inevitable that Paris was to be our entree. So with months of preparations behind us, we start to relax and absorb the daily pulse of Paris life with a particular focus on our stomachs.

Wandering through the streets of The Marais, our home for the next week, we stroll past the mouth-watering, abundant displays of food, so artfully arranged in the shop windows.

Chocolate Fondant
 We pass by the well known La Fougasse bakery, where the locals patiently line up out of the shop and down the footpath to buy some of the glistening tarts or crunchy golden breads. It’s the brightly coloured macaron’s that catch the eye and I find myself drawn into the line, eavesdropping on snippets of conversations happening around me. I wait behind an older man in a beret who is smiling and singing while waiting his turn, but he is sadly disappointed when he reaches the counter and there are no more baguettes. There is a lot of muttering in the line, but the stalwarts remained, glued and fastened to the serious business of bread.

Vanilla Creme

To celebrate our wedding anniversary and Steve’s birthday, I had pre booked the Restaurant Astier a few months ago on the recommendation of a Parisian foodie friend. The restaurant was conveniently located a short 500 metres from our apartment and provided an outstanding night of food and company. From the moment we stepped in through the door, the attentive and professional wait-staff provided immediate service and we were shown to a small table that adjoined another table for two.

Shortly afterwards a couple arrived and they were shown to the adjacent table. We were sitting so close, we could overhear their conversation and their toast to a birthday and were drawn into discussions about the great food, respective birthdays and their lives in Dusseldorf. By the end of the night and a couple of bottles of excellent French wine, we had swapped contact details, shared our experiences about the delicious food and pretty much sorted out the world’s troubles.

Our meals prepared by Chef Christophe Kestler were exceptional, with the winner the enormous cheese tray that provided an array of cheeses to sample. For mains, Steve and I could not go past the Magret duck, cooked to perfection and still slightly pink. As the duck was rare, our knives were replaced with sharper knives to deal with the resistance of the pink duck meat. This was prepared simply, pan-fried with no added spices or herbs to detract from the gamey flavour and served with tender, green asparagus and crunchy, French potatoes. My dessert was a mini, salted chocolate fondant pudding with house-made caramel ice cream atop. The chocolate pudding was still warm with a centre puddle of gooey salted chocolate. Steve chose the rich vanilla crème, presented with a vanilla bean poking out of the top - tres elegant!

The Astier’s cellar door opens from the dining area through a small arch to a set of steps that lead down to a cellar. This was situated under the restaurant where our waiter fetched a young bottle of Bourgueil cabernet franc wine from the Loire Valley.

JeanneA's interior
After our meal, we were shown to the Astier’s new venture, JeanneA, located next door, a less traditional but equally tempting bistro and delicatessen that showcased tarts and pies of all descriptions.

Restaurant Astier is located at 44 Rue Jean Paul Timbaud, Paris.

Chef Kestler provided the recipe here for the delicious salted chocolate fondant pudding. I have changed the wording of the recipe slightly.

Quantity makes 10 mini puddings.

Chocolate Fondant

500g of dark chocolate, 70% cacao
375g egg whites
250g egg yolks
250g castor sugar
200g icing sugar
375g butter, ½ salted butter
250g plain flour, sifted


250g dark chocolate, 70% cacao
1/3 cup whole cream
Good pinch of sea salt flakes

Firstly make the ganache, combine the chocolate and cream in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir with a metal spoon until smooth. Remove bowl from heat and set aside at room temperature to cool, stirring occasionally, until ganache is thick and spreadable. Mix in sea salt flakes. Leave to cool and thicken for approximately 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 200C and grease and flour 10 individual patty cake pans or silicon moulds.

Place the chocolate and the butter in a saucepan over a low heat until melted, set aside to cool slightly.

Beat together the egg yolks and sugar until light and creamy. Add the cooled, chocolate and butter mixture.

Whip the egg whites until firm and fold carefully into the mixture. Finally fold in the plain flour and pinch of sea salt.

Spoon the mixture into each patty pan until half full, then add a spoonful of ganache, then fill in the remaining half of each patty pan. Cook in a hot oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Allow to set and cool for 10 minutes before removing with a small spatula.

Serve with a vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Burnt caramel butter ice cream

First published Canberra Times 9 March 2011

Photo by Steve Shanahan
 If you’re planning a trip to Paris and you’re an ice cream lover, make sure you include the Berthillon luxury ice creamery on your list of must-do’s. Berthillon’s is located on the Ile St Louis and is well-patronised by locals and visitors, with aficionados lining the footpath to eagerly wrap their tongues around their exquisite, creamy ice glacés. They use only natural ingredients, specialising in custard-based glacés, with milk, cream, sugar and eggs.

As good as Berthillon is, you don’t actually have to go to Paris to have good ice cream. You could go to Italy, or you can make a burnt-caramel butter ice cream that will rival any of the best ice creameries in the world.

Don’t be put off if you don’t own an ice cream machine, because you can easily break up the ice crystals by hand and the result will still be deliciously creamy. People have been making ice cream by hand for many years still with fabulous results. I have included instructions for making this ice cream with or without a machine.

Because of the addition of the praline, this recipe does not freeze rock-hard, but retains a creamy silkiness that’s perfect with poached fruit or a fruit based cake. I made this ice cream to accompany a Jewish Apple Cake (see recipe on blog) for Steve’s birthday.

A couple of tips - as crazy as it sounds, you need to take the caramel up to a burnt stage to get the intensity of flavour that is the signature of this ice cream. The recipe calls for sea salt, make sure you use good quality sea salt flakes rather than table salt, which is too harsh. Adding chopped peanuts to the mixture conjures memories of eating scorched peanut bars, but I don’t like to fiddle too much with the flavours, as the balance is just perfect as it is. You can make the custard base and the caramel the day before, storing the praline in an airtight container out of the fridge and the custard in the fridge to chill for at least 8 hours before churning.

Ice cream custard

1 cup of heavy cream
2 cups of whole milk, divided into 1 cup each
1 ½ cups castor sugar
60g salted butter
½ tspn sea salt flakes
5 large egg yolks
¾ tspn vanilla extract


½ cup castor sugar
¾ tspn sea salt flakes

Firstly make the caramel praline, spread the ½ cup of sugar evenly in a medium sized, heavy based saucepan. Line a baking tray with a silicone baking mat or spray lightly with vegetable oil.

Heat the sugar over moderate heat until the edges begin to melt. Use a heatproof utensil, such as a silicone spatula, to gently stir the liquefied sugar from the bottom and edges, scraping towards the centre and stirring till all the sugar is dissolved. Some lumps may be visible at this stage, these will melt in later.

Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the caramel starts smoking and begins to smell like it’s just about to burn. This does not take long, only a few minutes. At this stage, the colour of the caramel will be dark-copper like an old penny.

Working quickly, sprinkle in the ¾ teaspoon of salt flakes without stirring, then immediately pour the caramel onto the prepared baking sheet, tipping and tilting to form as thin a layer as possible. Set aside to cool and harden. When completely cool, break up and store until needed in an airtight container.

To make the ice cream, make an ice bath by filling a large bowl about a third full with ice cubes and adding a cup of cold water so they’re floating. Nest a smaller metal bowl over the ice and pour 1 cup of the divided milk into the inner bowl. Set aside.

Again, spread 1½ cups sugar in the saucepan in an even layer. Cook over moderate heat until caramelised, using the same method as for the praline above. When the mixture has reached the copper colour stage, remove from the heat. Stir in the butter and salt flakes until the butter is melted, then gradually whisk in the cream, stirring gently. The caramel may spit at this stage. The caramel may harden and seize a little at this point, return to the heat and continue to stir over low heat until any hard caramel is melted. Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup of the divided milk.

Whisk the yolks in a small bowl and gradually pour a thin stream, about a ¼ cup, of the warm caramel mixture over the yolks, stirring constantly so as not to cook the yolks. Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook the custard on a medium heat using a heatproof utensil, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. If using a thermometer, it should read 71 to 77C.

Pour the custard into the chilled milk set over the ice bath, add the vanilla, then stir until the mixture is cooled.

If mixing by hand, the intention is to break up any ice crystals as they form. Freeze a deep sided dish for an hour or so before you need it. Pour the cooled custard into the frozen dish and return to the freezer for about 1 hour or until the mixture starts to freeze at the sides of the dish. Remove and break up vigorously with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon and return to the freezer. You could even use a stick blender to mix. Do this every 30 minutes for 3 hours.

If using a machine, refrigerate the custard for at least 8 hours before churning. Churn the mixture according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

When the ice cream is mixed or churned add in the crushed praline then chill in the freezer until firm. The praline will liquefy and become runny and gooey. Serve with poached fruit or cake. Adapted from the Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz.

Nectarine and raspberry friand cake

First published Canberra Times 2 March 2011
Photo by Steve Shanahan
Friands are small moist cakes made from almond and flour traditionally flavoured with citrus fruits. This cake is essentially an oversized friand and originates from Provence. Any combination of seasonal fruits can be added to this mixture, although adding tart stone fruit gives the cake a beautiful sour hit that balances the crunchy sugar top. Use tinned fruit if you can’t source fresh. The think I like about this cake is that it’s difficult to get wrong and is easily mixed by hand in a large bowl with no sifting necessary.

This cake is endlessly adaptable with the addition of extra ingredients that could include, coconut, chocolate pieces or orange blossom water. I have made the cake adding dollops of plum jam that ended up with a gorgeous sticky gooey centre, although when cooked it did let out a little sigh in the centre, sinking ever so slightly which only added to the cake’s rustic charm.

Serve the cake still warm from the oven as a dessert with custard or cream, but is also wonderful as an afternoon tea cake served with cups of hot milky tea.

4 ripe nectarines, peeled
200 g fresh or frozen raspberries
1½ cups icing sugar
¾ cup of self raising flour
2½ cups almond meal
1 tbsp grated orange rind
8 egg whites
185g butter, melted
1½ tbsp milk
2 tsps raw sugar

Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and line the base and sides of a 23cm spring-form cake tin. Slice the cheeks off the nectarines, removing the stones.

Sift the icing sugar and flour into a large bowl and stir in the almond meal until well mixed. Place the egg whites in a bowl and whisk lightly with a fork only for a few seconds until broken up and slightly foamy. Add the egg whites, melted butter and milk to the almond mixture and stir until just combined. Fold in half of the raspberries, being mindful not to over mix.

Pour half the cake mixture into the lined cake tin and sprinkle with the remaining berries. Pour the remaining half of the cake mixture over the berries. Place the nectarine halves on the top, pushing down and sinking them slightly into the cake mixture.

Bake cake for about 1 hour or until a skewer comes out clean. If the top is browning too quickly place a piece of foil over the top. Leave cake in tin for 10 minutes before turning out on a wire rack. Serve with cream or mascarpone.

Crunchy Noodle Salad

Photo by Steve Shanahan

First published Canberra Times 16 February 2011

Over the summer months when we’re invited to barbecues and parties, I generally offer to contribute by bringing a plate. This noodle salad is always such a hit with family and friends, that my offer is generally met with a less than subtle hint. Okay noodle salad it is! This suits me because it’s such a snack to prepare, although almost always, somebody asks for the recipe, and almost always I feel embarrassed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really tasty, but I thought the secret was out and everyone knew the recipe by now, because it’s actually written on the back of the Chang’s Crunchy Noodle packet.

Photo by Steve Shanahan

It’s especially good as a side salad with barbecued meats, or it can make a complete meal by adding about 300g of shredded chicken, or my favourite Chinese roast duck or barbecued pork. Kids generally love it too.

The salad doesn’t keep its crunch long after the noodles are added. So if you are transporting the salad and not serving it straight away, combine all the salad ingredients in a bowl, leaving the noodles unopened in the bag and pre-mix the dressing in a well sealed jar, ready to add at the last moment.

I change this recipe slightly to add any chopped herbs you have on hand such as, coriander, parsley or mint. You can also add pomegranate seeds or fruit pieces for colour and sweetness.

Serves 8

1 Chinese cabbage (wom bok) shredded finely
8 shallots, chopped including much of the green stalk
100g lightly roasted slivered almonds or pinenuts
100g packet of Chang’s Fried Noodles
1 red capsicum, sliced finely
6 shitake mushrooms, finely sliced
300g roasted and chopped chicken, duck or pork


¼ cup of white vinegar
¼ cup castor sugar (less to taste)
1 tbsp light soy sauce
¼ cup olive oil
2 tsp sesame oil

Mix all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl until the sugar has dissolved. Combine the cabbage, shallots, mushrooms, capsicum and almonds in a large salad bowl. Just before serving add the dressing and mix well, then add the noodles, mixing thoroughly. I usually serve the meat on the side, reserving a little of the salad dressing as a dipping sauce. Garnish with red chilli.