Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Warming up with Duck Rillettes and Mulligatawny Soup

First published Canberra Times 27 July 2011.
As we hibernate and hunker down in the depths of a cold Canberra winter, salmon and lentil salads just don’t cut it for lunches. With some forewarning of visitors arriving for the weekend, I prepare for a Saturday lunch that will sustain the hungry horde until dinnertime. Our visitors are committed funsters, exercise hard and spend much of their time here riding the great bike paths of Canberra.

I take cover indoors from the grey skies and freezing winter winds. I am more than happy to batten down the hatches by preparing the meals, stoking the fire, anything really, just don’t put me in the saddle on days like these.

Having scored some fresh duckling, and not enough time to make a confit, I’m leaning towards the next best thing, duck rillettes. This, combined with some hot and spicy traditional mulligatawny soup with coconut milk, should hit the spot. With a bit of time leftover, I prepare a thermos of cinnamon and malt infused milk, with just a dash of brandy, for fortification purposes, of course.

Rillettes can be taken on a picnic if needed and easily spread on a piece of crostini or sour dough with some baby cornichons. They also make a great TV dinner or a starter to a meal. We had these recently in France as part of a lazy afternoon lunch among the vineyards of Alsace.

Appetites seem to grow in this weather, with gnawing hungers screaming out for rich, weighty foods, steaming soups and hot drinks. Our noisy gaggle returns from their ride, lingering to see what’s on offer. Diving in with helmets, hats and gloves off, the red cheeked mob eat and drink noisily without saying a word. I can only assume this is a sign of approval.

Duck rillettes
3 to 4 duck legs, with thighs attached
sea salt
ground black pepper
4 bay leaves
4 sprigs thyme
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
chopped tarragon
approximately 400g duck fat, melted slightly
70g pistachio nuts, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 150C. Place the duck legs into a roasting dish so they fit snugly together. Sprinkle the garlic, thyme, and bay leaves over the top and season with salt and pepper. Cover the duck legs with duck fat. Roast for 2 ½ hours until the meat is tender and falls off the bone. Allow the duck legs to cool in the dish slightly and lift out onto a plate. Strain the duck fat through a fine sieve and set aside. Shred or chop the meat, discarding the skin. Place the meat in a mixing bowl.
Add the pistachios and tarragon to the duck meat and mix gently. Moisten with a little of the strained duck fat and season to taste. Place the mixture into a jar or dish, pressing down with the back of a spoon and pour a little of the reserved duck fat to cover and seal the top. Refrigerate to set.
Remove the rillettes from the fridge half an hour or so before serving, to allow to come to room temperature. Serve with pickled vegetables, and cornichons on warm crostini or toast.

Mulligatawny Soup
Serves 4
2 onions, chopped
30g butter
sea salt and black pepper
4 tbsp tomato puree
3 tbsp curry powder
2 tbsp plain flour
400ml chicken stock
400ml coconut milk
1 green apple, grated
3 tbsp ginger, grated
chopped coriander
sour cream for drizzle

Melt butter in a large saucepan, add the onions and fry for a few minutes till softened but not coloured. Stir in the tomato puree, curry powder and flour, stirring frequently for 2 minutes. Add the ginger and apple, continuing to cook on high heat for a few more minutes.
Add the stock, a little at first, stirring and scraping the caramelisation off the bottom of the pan. Add the remaining stock and coconut milk, and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook until slightly thickened. Add the rice and simmer for another 4 minutes. Season to taste. Serve with chopped coriander and a swirl of sour cream.

Malt and cinnamon toddy
Serves 4
2 cinnamon sticks
1/3 cup malted milk powder
4 cups milk
1 vanilla bean, split open
¼ cup good quality brandy (optional for adults)
Mix a little of the milk with the malted milk powder in a cup till dissolved. Pour the milk and malted milk powder and the remaining milk into a saucepan over low heat and bring to the boil while stirring. Remove the cinnamon sticks and vanilla bean. Add the brandy, pour into mugs and serve.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bittersweet choc tartlets and choc fleur de sel cookies

First published Canberra Times 20 July 2011.
July to October is birthday central in our house, calling for a serious round of creative cake making and planning on my part.  For inspiration I turn to my shelf of well-thumbed cook books. I flick past the cakes I have made previously, to avoid the most unforgivable of sins - making the same cake twice for any one of the four birthday girls.  

My notes pencilled in the margins tell me which ones work, what some of the fun variations are and who’s had what cake over the years to avoid repetitions. Those young memories are bound to remind me in any case.
 Accounting for an assortment of increasingly sophisticated tastes can be a risky business, because I know that one doesn’t like coffee, another won’t eat carbs but will eat soy, another loathes dried fruit and custard and so on; you get the picture.

Do I rely on old family favourites from my grandmother’s handwritten notes, her fail-proof sponge with a hint of orange blossom, or a death by chocolate, or a glorious meringue and  macaron concoction? 

It’s hard work on this cold Saturday morning and, as often happens, I get sidetracked, lost in recipe readings. By now, I’m hanging out for a morning tea treat and have a taste for something rich and sinful. The salty, sweet combination brings out the whole umami thing and it’s what I need to keep me going.

Should I opt for salty, dark chocolate chip cookies or a batch of silky bittersweet chocolate tartlets with a tickle of fleur de sel and a double shot coffee?  I can’t settle on either, there’s no turning back now.  I’ll just have to make both.

Quick, check the fridge.  Yes, plenty of butter and cream and to the pantry for the fleur de sel and a load of 70% chocolate.  Get rolling, the birthday cakes can wait – coffee’s on.  
Don’t mess with these, they are both perfect as they are, rich and seriously addictive.

Chocolate chip cookies with fleur de sel
450g flour
1 tspn bicarbonate of soda
1 ½ tspn baking powder
1 ½ tspn fleur de sel (sea salt)
275g unsalted butter
275g brown sugar
230g sugar
2 large eggs
2 tspn vanilla extract
550g dark chocolate, 80% cocoa solids, roughly chopped
fleur de sel (sea salt) for sprinkling
 Sift flours, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition, then stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, about 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Roll dough into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap, refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 180C. Line a baking tray with baking paper or a non-stick baking mat. Set aside.
Scoop 8 balls of dough, the size of golf balls onto baking sheet, making sure to push any chocolate pieces that are poking up. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. When cooked transfer baking tray to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin. Recipe adapted from Jacque Torres through Marjorie Taylor.

Bittersweet chocolate tartlets with fleur de sel
Roll of chocolate Careme shortcrust pastry (if you cannot source ready-made pastry, see below for chocolate pastry recipe)

1½ cups double cream
2 tbsp caster sugar
300g dark chocolate, 80% cocoa solids, chopped
2 eggs

fleur de sel ( sea salt) flakes for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 180C. Quantity should make about 10, depending on size of tins.
Grease the tartlet tins, mine were about 2 inches in diameter and quite shallow. This makes them easier to remove when cooked. Roll out the thawed pastry till it’s quite thin and press into tartlet tins. Prick with a fork, and place in the oven to bake for about 12 to 15 minutes. The crusts should be dried when fully baked.

While the tartlet shells are baking, heat the cream and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Pour over the chopped chocolate and whisk together until combined.  Whisk the eggs into the chocolate just before the shells have finished baking. You should have a glossy ganache type consistency.
Remove the shells from the oven and turn off the oven. Spoon the filling into the shells, finishing with a twist.  Return the tartlets to the oven and leave them in the hot oven for about 5 to 8 minutes. This will set your filling.
Place tartlets on a wire rack to cool. Sprinkle each tartlet with a few grains of salt while still hot.

If you choose to make your own pastry for these tartlets, see the following recipe.
Chocolate tart pastry

200g plain flour
50g good quality cocoa powder

2 tbsp icing sugar
200g cold butter, diced

160ml sour cream
Preheat oven to 180C. Quantity should make 6 to 8 tartlets, depending on the size of your tins.

Sieve the flour, icing sugar and cocoa together. Pour into the bowl of a food processor, add the butter and pulse to combine the butter and flour, until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add most of the sour cream slowly, keeping a little back and pulse until combined. Add the rest of the sour cream if the mixture is too dry. Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly to combine. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to rest for half an hour.
Roll out the pastry quite thinly and cut larger circles than the diameter of your tartlet tins. Fit into the tins and prick the shell bases with a fork. Bake for 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and fill the tartlet shells with the chocolate ganache as above.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Classic from the heart - Ontbijtkoek

First published Canberra Times 13 July 2011
Imprisoned at home and a captive audience after recent surgery, I resort to recent episodes of the current Masterchef series for company. This phenomenon seems to be consuming all in its path, as it heaves the victorious temporarily into the limelight and condemns and literally casts out its losers. Is it my imagination, or have the gladiator-type theatrics been ratcheted up a few notches for this series?

Usually a sucker for shows that promote real food, diversity and development of our food culture, I find the reality TV format mixed with food a frustrating combination. I could blame my post operative pain for the sudden sensitivity of my cliché metre, but I suspect it was the surges of passion, tears and bags of determination that have become palpable in the Masterchef kitchen. I believe they may have exceeded the legal limit of how many times you can cook from the heart. Bring back those galloping gourmets, Bernard King and Peter Russell Clarke.

This reference to cooking from the heart is a curious thing. Is it overdone syrupy sentimentalism designed for uncritical TV audiences, or an authentic principle on which to base your approach to cooking? After self-reflection into my own cooking philosophy, I can only conclude that I am drawn to food I like, and that is inextricably linked to childhood, family and identity. I face the uncomfortable realisation that what I cook is quite a personal thing, and it’s just possible, I too cook from the heart. I’m now officially part of the cliché.

Take for example, the Dutch spice cake, Ontbijtkoek (breakfast cake). Just one waft of this cake triggers huge childhood memories for me because it was such an integral part of my growing up. This cake was everywhere for us: at breakfast, in our school lunchboxes and there was always a fresh one baking in the oven. Our household was not complete without an Ontbijtkoek in the cupboard.

Ontbijtkoek is available all over Holland, from the baker’s shop to the butcher’s and dates back to the 17th century when the Netherlands dominated world trade through its Dutch East Indies fleet. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg were craved by all of Europe and literally worth their weight in gold. It’s no coincidence that these are the spices that give Ontbijtkoek its unique flavour.

Every migrant family has its own story of cultural gains and losses, but I am grateful that my family chose to retain some of their traditions to pass on to my generation. Cooking food that was familiar to them would have provided some comfort for the homesickness they must have felt when arriving in Australia as migrants in the 1950s. It was probably not a conscious process, but perhaps a result of the social and linguistic isolation they experienced.

I have played with this recipe numerous times, changing the ratios of liquid to solids and varying cooking times. The cake mix is quite stiff, and the final result is firm in texture and can be sliced and toasted like bread. This recipe is usually baked as a whole cake, although I successfully baked this one in little Kugelhof moulds. Alternatively, you could use any muffin or patty tins. If you choose to bake it as a whole cake, increase the cooking time to about an hour at 180C.   

Departing from tradition, I also added a sugary cinnamon coating on these that gives a donut-like flavour, but they’re just as good slathered with pure, creamy butter. A drizzle of melted dark chocolate over the top of the cake gives it a distinctive German Christmas flavour.

Keeping time varies, out of the fridge it keeps about 2 weeks. It improves with age, and tradition says that it should be kept in a container with a slice of bread to preserve its freshness. Makes 10 individual cakes or one loaf.

2 cups self raising flour
½ cup dark brown sugar
cup golden syrup
1 cup milk
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground Dutch cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp grated nutmeg
pinch of salt

Topping (optional)
1 tsp ground Dutch cinnamon
4 tbsp caster sugar
5 tbsp melted unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 180C for loaf, for individual cakes bake at 150C. Combine all cake mixture ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix to a smooth paste. It should fall in a ribbon from the spoon. Grease a 23cm x 10cm loaf tin, or individual cake moulds. Fill with the cake mix and slam on the bench top to remove bubbles.  Bake loaf tin for approximately one hour or individual cakes for 25 minutes, insert a skewer to come out clean to check if they are cooked.

Topping for small cakes
While cakes are still warm brush lightly with melted butter and roll twice in combined cinnamon and sugar.  

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Pot au feu - Comfort in the madness

First published Canberra Times Wednesday 6 July 2011.
With our Alsatian adventure over, and a gruelling but uneventful flight behind us, we are relieved to be aboard our little plane at Sydney airport ready to make the final hop home to Canberra. I settle back into my seat, daydreaming of fresh baguette, pungent cheese and a succulent duck breast bought from our local boulangerie, fromagerie and boucherie. Sadly, when we get home, we will make do with the bread, cheese and probably even the meat from the local supermarket, with a proper trip to the market later in the week. After our amazing food experience in France, it is now difficult to resume life as we once knew it.

Our exhausted relief is punctured by an announcement. “Apologies for the delay. There’s a problem with the plane’s navigation system”. Before we know it, we are all offloaded to await news on the repairs. After a couple of hours watching the TV screen as it cycles through news repeats between bouts of dozing, we are told that the plane is too broken and the flight is cancelled. All other flights are full and we need to make alternative travel arrangements. My patience has reached near shattering point, and I use my remaining reserves to hire a car to drive the final leg home. Exiting the airport carpark, a strange sense of déjà vu emerges, as we take off on the right-hand side of the road. Oops.

There are many myths about jet lag, and more cures than you can poke a stick at. My theory is that the older I get, the more I feel the extent of its impact and I rely more and more on the restorative powers of food. To assist our body-clocks to deal with this change and return to their home circadian rhythms, I make a soothing Pot-au-feu. (literally “pot of fire”). Somehow I get the feeling this will not be an easy transition and my rhythms will remain firmly glued to the warm days and the haute cuisine of France, strongly resisting the cold winter realities of Canberra. If the goodness of Pot-au-feu can’t massage them back into place, nothing can.

Throughout France, there are many regional versions of Pot-au-feu, including coastal and inland variations. The thing that remains constant is that the soup is always served in two parts; the broth served first and the boiled meats and vegetables served afterwards. 

The origins of this dish go back to medieval France where serfs and peasants, as a matter of survival, had to take what they produced in the fruitful times and turn it into food that could sustain them through the lean times of the year. This involved preserving and processing food to ensure it would last out the long, and often harsh European winters.

Imagine that your kitchen has an earthenware pot permanently simmering on the stove, filled with stock, meat and vegetables. This is replenished as it is used and the pot is only cleaned out in readiness for the meatless weeks of Lent. The stock is served as a first course, then the boiled meats and accompanying vegetables as the second course. The meat trimmings and leftovers are added back to the stockpot to be reused in other dishes, enriching the stock. This soup never tastes the same twice and ends up a genuine party in a pot. This was also where soup as a starter or entree made its entry into gastronomic history.

For recuperative purposes, I make a meatless Pot-au-feu, but with a base of home-made chicken stock. I use a mixture of fresh, seasonal vegetables, and include my new-found addiction acquired in France - broad beans. They are a bit of work to prepare, as they need to be blanched to remove the outer skin, but well worth the effort for their beautiful, nutty flavour and bright green colour. Broad beans are a winter vegetable and can be picked right through till spring. A stalk of fresh lemongrass provides a citrusy overtone that works really well with the vegetables. In contrast to our poor serfs and peasants, I only cook my vegetables until just tender so they still retain their crunch.  It is topped with finely shaved truffle, which truly works wonders on the egg, a comforting Provencal addition to each bowl. The fresh herb basil and parsley coulis adds a touch of spring to this winter soup.

Julia Child suggests that when you make Pot-au-feu and you include a variety of meats, to ensure each piece receives the right amount of cooking, you should tie a string to each one and lift it out to see if it’s cooked! I can imagine the reactions from my family, as they watch me hauling out a chicken or a pig’s foot tied to the end of a piece of string from what is to be their dinner. Serve with lots of crunchy bread spread with plenty of unsalted butter to sop up the broth.
Serves 4
3 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 leeks, white part only, cut into 4 cm lengths
Salt and white pepper to taste
3 large potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 4 centimetre lengths
3 cups of chicken stock
1 stick of lemongrass, bashed and split
2 slices of thin orange peel, zest only
6 sliced radish, optional
1 bunch of asparagus, tender parts only chopped into 4 cm lengths
4 large shitake mushrooms, sliced thickly
300g baby spinach leaves
4 large poached eggs
couple of handfuls of fresh basil and parsley
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil, extra
pinch of salt
shaved truffle, optional

To make the herb coulis, use a stick blender to whizz the basil, parsley and ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil together with a pinch of sea salt.

In a large frypan warm the olive oil over medium heat. Toss in the garlic, cook for a minute. Add the leek and onion and shake around, Season with salt and pepper. Cook the leek and onion for about 5 minutes. Stir in the potatoes, carrots, stock, lemongrass and orange peel. Bring to the boil and lower heat to a gentle simmer. 

Cook uncovered until the vegetables are just cooked, but not yet tender, this should take about 10 minutes.
While the vegetables are simmering bring an additional frypan of water to a simmer and slip 4 eggs into the water to poach for a couple of minutes until just cooked.

Take the vegetables off the heat, and in the last couple of moments before serving, add the mushrooms, asparagus, baby spinach and radish to the broth to wilt and just warm through.

Ladle the Pot-au-feu into 4 large bowls, top each with a softly poached egg and an optional slice of truffle, a drizzle of herb coulis and serve immediately.