Saturday, 30 January 2010

Dimbleby's dinners

My eyes snapped open at 0530am this morning but I managed, with heroic effort, to stay in bed until 0650am. It's now 9am and I've read all the papers, including all that stuff about John Terry - the least surprising sex scandal I've ever read about (and I've read a LOT, you know?? Titter) - including all the fun bits of The Guide, including all the recipe sections and Giles' excellent piece in The Times Mag about Americans who don't eat anything ( and dismissed the idea that the photo of him on the front of the Magazine made him look "old and baggy". I've also eaten a massive fry-up and had three cups of tea and one cup of coffee. God only knows how I'm going to fill the rest of the day, until it's time to have a fretful little nap at about 4pm, waking up at 7pm with no idea where I am, feeling queasy.

Just imagine how much earlier I would have woken up, how much worse the jet laggery would have been, how many more things I would have achieved in the cold, snowy dawn, had Henry Dimbleby, the chef and co-owner of healthy fast-food chain Leon and, most important, husband of my first boss, the journalist Jemima Lewis, not invited us to dinner last night.

We had lamb and posh macaroni cheese, red cabbage, roasted vegetables and then an apple tatin using, we were utterly scandalised but also thrilled to learn, Jus-Roll pastry. "Why do they leave off the 'T'?" wondered Henry. "To make it sound more friendly," I said.

Anyway, Henry had rested the joint of lamb for an hour - a WHOLE HOUR - which has got me resolved to do the same in the future. Just use hot plates, hot vegetables and hot gravy and then the less-than-boiling meat doesn't matter a whit. He also made the stunning posh macaroni cheese made especially for my sister, Hannah, who was also there and who had requested for dinner (because she is pregnant AGAIN) "a huge pile of carbs covered in cheese". It was, as carbohydrates always are, the star of the party.

I love macaroni cheese, but mine is very 70s - a floury, cheesy sauce. Nice and everything but Imake it with chedder and, goddamnit, it doesn't half leak grease and bleurgh like no-one's business and it can leave you feeling a bit... heavy.

Henry uses cream and morels as a sauce to bind the pasta and then bakes it in the oven covered in a lot of Gruyere. I didn't grab him by the ears and force him to tell me the exact recipe, because that's a bit like asking a doctor at a party about the funny stabbing pain you get behind your right knee from time to time. But at a guess, he does something like this:

Boil the pasta, saute the morels gently in some butter, with salt and pepper, for a few minutes, then pour in a lot of double cream and mix round for a bit until warmed through but not, I'd guess, bubbling. Then pour in the pasta and stir to combine. Turn out into a gratin dish and cover with about three times as much Gruyere cheese as you think you need and bake in the oven for, I'd guess, about 25 mins, probably 180 degrees.

It's just brilliant. I'm never going to make mac and cheese any other way again.

I thought Henry had a recipe blog but it turns out not! I shall just have to steal his recipes and post them here. But there is a new Leon cookbook coming out in September and it's going to change the way we all cook dinner - all the recipes have 8 ingredients or fewer and can be accomplished in 6 steps.

Thursday, 28 January 2010


Ah me, jet lag hours seem long. It is 0525 in the am, I can hardly believe it, and I am wide awake with mean jet lag after flying in from India yesterday. Or was it today? All I know is that I woke up in Fort Cochin, pre-dawn, at some point in the last 36 hours and now I'm sitting here, pre-dawn, not entirely sure what day it is, with nothing to do. Giles has put a wash on, I made an emergency breakfast out of delicious defrosted Cranks wholemeal bread (sliced up at room temperature and then tucked away in the freezer in freezer bags), Nutella and black tea. (No milk, you see - Sainsbury's doesn't open until 7am).

Anyway, I'd like to say that Kerala all looks like this:

... and some of it does. But a lot of it looks like this:

But what am I saying? God, I'm so bourgeoise. A couple of open sewers, a leprotic (is this a word?), stoned tuk-tuk driver and I go all Valley Girl and start squealing Gross Me Out!!!!
But this isn't about me and my hygiene issues, this is about food.

The thing I noticed most about Kerala is that absolutely nowhere was anyone eating my Keralan curry, which I wrote about back in November:

Yes, there was a lot of stuff cooked in coconut milk, as coconuts literally grow on trees in that part of the world, but it was all pretty tomatoey. I won't say it was nothing special, because it was lovely, but to my narrow, London eyes, spoiled by the Cinnamon Club and Moti Mahal and other Pukka Indian joints, curry has to work pretty hard to be surprising.

It was more the side dishes, extras, drinks and puddings that were unusual. Tea-time on the shores of Lake Kumarakom brought banana fritters; at Munnar hill station it was all about pancakes stuffed with coconut, raisins and cashews tucked up at both ends in a pretty parcel; for pudding at Malabar House in Cochin I had three dainty chocolate samosas on a mango coulis. Yes! Chocolate samosas!

I'm also newly in love with bindi, Okra, ladies' fingers, or whatever you want to call them. Some people think they are gross, which I can understand, but they are my new craving. All over Kerala they are diced up with coconut (obviously) Nigella seeds (I think) onion, turmeric and a bit of chilli and called 'Vegetable Thoran'. This is probably a very obvious dish to a lot of people and me putting it in inverted commas would be like someone discussing such interesting European breakfast foods such as 'croissant' or 'toast'.

Last for now is the marvellous and delicious drink called a Cochin Cooler, consisting of mint, ginger, honey, lime juice and soda. Dipsomaniacs could add a splash of vodka or rum. It sounds familiar and it tastes familiar but I'm pretty sure I've never had a cocktail with ginger in it. Anyway, I'll be covering the Cochin Cooler and the banana fritters, as well as a rice pancake called 'appam' in more detail soon. Right now, I've got some jet lagging to do.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Back from the dead

I'd like to take a moment, if I may, to deviate, briefly, from food. It's because I haven't really been able to eat much for a while and so haven't posted anything. The other day, the spectre of my semi-abandoned blog made me so depressed that I deleted it.

I thought no more about it until the lovely Claire B Twittered me to ask me where it was. Well hell, I thought, if one person is reading it, that makes it worthwhile.

But the not eating thing is a bit of a problem. I've been a bit stressed lately and most things turn to ashes in my mouth, or make me sick. I've written here before, boringly and at length, about how I am cursed with being anxious, fearful and weedy and, alas, all it takes is small application of pressure on my scared little head and nothing can pass my lips for weeks. I guess you could call that lucky: some people gorge themselves at the slightest provocation - sadness, stress, anxiety - I on the other hand, sit on the stairs and fade away. It doesn't make me much of a foodie, I suppose.

I'll get back to the food, in time. I bought for myself before Christmas a Jamie Oliver cookbook and the Ottolenghi cookbook - I'm also going to India on holiday for a bit, where I hope to bring back more easy peasy Keralan curries.

For now, though, the only thing that seems to go down okay is a cup of tea with sugar in it. I'm on my third of the day.

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Cookie Buffet: Pumpkin Bread Bites

I've never attempted a pumpkin cookie before, even though autumn is my favorite season, and nothing screams "Fall" more loudly than pumpkin-flavored goodies. Most of the time, I content myself with pumpkin pie, but I knew from the beginning that I'd definitely want to include pumpkin cookies in the cookie buffet at the shower.  I found a Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe on the FoodNetwork online courtesy of George Duran. I tweaked the recipe a significant amount, changing the amount of sugar, spice, and pumpkin.

I also decided to omit the chocolate chips in favor of butterscotch chips. At first, it sounds a little strange, I know. I chose to do this mainly because I already had chocolate chip cookies for the buffet, but in retrospect, I loved how they turned out with the butterscotch chips. Honestly, even though I am a little curious how they'd be with chocolate, they were so good with the butterscotch that I wouldn't want to make them any other way.
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 1 C packed light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-16oz can of pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
  • 3 C AP flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice (or ground cloves depending on your tastebuds)
  • Half of a 12oz bag of butterscotch chips
  • 1 C chopped pecans


1.  Preheat oven to 350F
2.  Cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy
3.  Beat in eggs one at a time, then beat on vanilla and pumpkin puree
4.  In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, and spices.
5.  Add to the batter in 3 batches, mixing until just combined
6.  Mix in the chips and nuts
7.  Drop onto parchment-lined cookie sheets with a #60 scoop
8.  Bake for about 14 minutes, until cookies are slightly browned around the edges
9.  Cool on sheet for 2 minutes, then remove to rack to cool completely

Yield: about 8 dozen

These cookies have a texture very similar to pumpkin bread. They are soft and moist, and totally a must for any fan of pumpkin. I love the butterscotch chips here, but reviews online also seemed to like the chocolate chips, so I don't think you can go wrong either way. One thought I had was to add the cinnamon swirl chips instead of butterscotch or chocolate, but I think I'll stick with butterscotch because I have a feeling that cinnamon chips would be overwhelming.

The Cookie Buffet: Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies. Where would a cookie buffet be without them? Believe it or not, this was a new recipe. I normally make the good ol' standby Tollhouse recipe, which is yummy to be sure. But I didn't want to make the same old thing for the shower. I've been wanting to branch out and experiment with chocolate chip cookies that use both butter and shortening for a while now, and this was the perfect opportunity. A little gumshoe detective work turned up this recipe from the lady herself, Paula Deen. It uses both butter and shortening, and three kinds of chocolate.

That's right. And nuts. Well, at least it did by the time I was done tweaking the recipe.

The stars of today's blog:

  • 2 sticks of butter, softened
  • 1/2 C vegetable shortening
  • 1 C sugar
  • 1 1/2 C packed light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 3 3/4 C AP flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1-12oz package semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 C milk chocolate chips
  • 4-5oz (about half of an 11.5oz bag) bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1 C chopped walnuts (or other nut of your choice)
Three kinds of chocolate! Nuff said.

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F
  2. Beat butter and shortening until creamy. Add both sugars and cream until fluffy.
  3. Add eggs and vanilla, beating well
  4. Combine dry ingredients in a small bowl and blend. Slowely add to butter mixture and beat until just combined
  5. Stir in chips and nuts.
  6. Drop onto parchment-lined cookie sheets with a #60 scoop for 11.5-12 minutes until lightly browned
  7. Cool for 2 minutes on cookie sheet, then remove to rack to cool completely
Yield: 5 1/2 dozen

And ta da! Enough scrumptious chocolate chip cookies to fill multiple tins!
In all seriousness, these cookies are fabulous. I like them even better than Tollhouse, for bot texture and taste. Paula's original recipe calls for almond brickle chips and chopped bittersweet bars, which I'm sure would taste good, but I'll stick with walnuts and the ease of using bittersweet chips. The only other major adjustment I made was in the ratio of white to brown sugar, I bumped up the white sugar just a tad, reducing the brown sugar to compensate. This didn't affect the moisture of the cookies, but it did prevent them from being too sweet, which was the only complaint I read in reviews of the original recipe.

The Cookie Buffet: Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies

I decided to include a gluten-free selection in my shower’s cookie buffet, for one of my best friends and bridesmaids, Rachel, whose dietary needs necessitate gluten-free living. Now, I wasn’t sure how to go about making gluten-free cookies, but luckily my main man, Alton Brown, came to the rescue with this gluten-free chocolate chip cookie recipe. I can not say enough good things about Alton Brown in general, or this recipe in particular. Believe it or not, these cookies taste pretty much like any other chocolate chip cookie, no mean feat considering that there is not a smidgen of wheat anywhere in sight.

Alton’s secret, so I am told, is through his choice of alternate flours and their proportions. His recipe calls for a combination of brown rice four, tapioca flour, corn starch, and xanthan gum, which comes as close to recapitulating the taste and texture of wheat flour as you can get…without actually using wheat flour.

And now for a brief scientific interlude (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if the science of baking doesn’t interest you)…According to Alton, a lot of volume in wheat flour is starch, which isn’t hard to replace with the starch from another type of flour, but getting the texture right calls for a mixture. Brown rice flour provides the bulk of the starch, and taste, as it blends well with brown sugar. Unfortunately it is slightly gritty, which is where the smoother corn starch comes in. Tapioca flour contributes to the rise and texture because the starch in tapioca flour gelatinizes at a lower temperature than the starches in either rice flour or corn starch. The binding action of gluten is filled by the xanthan gum (interesting little story on the discovery and background of xanthan gum here, as a microbiologist, I couldn’t resist). Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide that can be used to stabilize emulsions, adding both volume and structure to baked goods.

I thought these ingredients would be hard to find, but they were at my local Wegman’s. Now that I know what to look for, I also notice that my local Shop Rite is increasingly carrying gluten-free flours in multiple varieties, so these components shouldn’t be too difficult to get a hold of. All of the flours I used were Bob’s Red Mill, and look something like this:

Those little red circles with the check marks at the bottom by the UPC code means that they are certified “gluten-free.” They also have gluten-free baking blends, which are supposed to be able to substitute for flour in any baking recipe, but for this particular recipe at least, I’d stick to what Alton says. The special flours aren’t terribly expensive, but they aren’t cheap either, as a fair warning. These cookies are definitely more expensive to make than ordinary chocolate chippers, but it is worth it to make special treats for people you care about! There really is nothing like homemade baked goods.

The Chewy Gluten-Free
from Alton Brown, Food Network (“Sub Standards” S11E4)

  • 8 oz butter

  • 11 oz brown rice flour, approx. 2 cups

  • 1 1/4 oz cornstarch, approx. 1/4 cup

  • 1/2 oz tapioca flour, approx. 2 T

  • 1 tsp xanthan gum

  • 1 tsp kosher salt

  • 1 tsp baking soda

  • 2 oz sugar, approx. 1/4 cup

  • 10 oz light brown sugar, approx. 1 1/4 cups

  • 1 whole egg

  • 1 egg yolk

  • 2 T whole milk

  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

  • 12 oz semisweet chocolate chips

  • 1 C bittersweet chocolate chips (optional)

  • 1C nuts (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

  2. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat. Once melted, pour into the bowl of a stand mixer.

  3. In a medium bowl, sift together the rice flour, cornstarch, tapioca flour, xanthan gum, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

  4. Add both of the sugars to the bowl with the butter and using the paddle attachment, cream together on medium speed for 1 minute. Add the whole egg, egg yolk, milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Add the chocolate chips and stir to combine.

  5. Chill the dough in the refrigerator until firm, approximately 1 hour. Shape the dough into 1 ½-inch balls (using a #40 cookie scoop) and place on greased or parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing them a couple inches apart. Bake for 14 ½ minutes.

  6. Remove from the oven and cool the cookies on the pans for 2 minutes. Move the cookies to a wire rack and cool completely. Store cooked cookies in an airtight container. Makes about 3 ½ dozen cookies.

The only real difference between assembling this dough and a typical chocolate chip cookie dough is that you melt the butter before creaming it with the sugar. This is usually a cookie-making no-no, because melted butter makes cookies spread too much, and brown too fast. And I found it unusual because this particular batter has to be refrigerated to prevent excess spreading already (which isn’t unheard of, but not something I normally do for a simple chocolate chip cookie). Melting the butter sounds a bit like courting disaster, and Alton gives no explanation (I re-watched the segment of the episode just to make sure I didn’t miss it), but it works perfectly. Maybe it has something to do with the xanthan gum or the other flour components. It bothers me a little to not know why something works, but gluten-free baking is an art form, so I just go with it.

I adjusted the oven temp and cooking time based on reviews, as well as the vanilla amount, but you can view Alton’s original recipe via the link above. I also added in bittersweet chips to give the cookies a little more depth of flavor. Next time, I will add a cup of walnuts as well, and potentially milk chocolate chips (I have a triple chocolate chip cookie coming up as the next recipe, in fact).

Don't these look great?!

If someone has other dietary needs in addition to gluten-free, such as a casein intolerance necessitating dairy-free (which occurs in about 50% of people with Celiac’s so I’ve read), coconut or rice milk can be substituted in for the milk in the batter, and dairy-free chocolate chips can also be used. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve read that there are several butter substitutes that hold up decently well to baking cookies (which has more of a butter requirement than something like cakes), including Earth Balance Buttery Sticks, Smart Balance Light or Spectrum Organic Shortening. Coconut oil (which is solid at room temperature) can also substitute for butter in cookies, but beware of the increased saturated fat content if you go that route. There is a nice blog with additional info on butter substitutions here.

As a side note, if you are planning on making this recipe for someone because they have a gluten allergy, particularly a severe one, it really is best if you use equipment that is dedicated to being gluten-free all the time.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The Cookie Buffet: Spice Cake Balls

Cake balls. Have you heard about these things? Up until a year ago, I hadn't. And then I spied this post on (where else?) Bakerella's site. And folks, these things are easy. Ridiculously easy. And they taste good. Ridiculously good. So good that people have trouble believing that they are so easy, in fact. But I promise, they are. 

Aren't these pretty in their fall colors?

I had already made these a few times before, so making them for the shower was a no-brainer. Are you ready for how easy this is? Okay, here we go. But you've been warned.

  1. Bake a cake from a mix. Any cake. For the shower, I baked a spice cake, but it literally can be any cake you want. I baked it in a 9x13" pan for the convenience, but you can use any pan if you really want to. But I highly recommend a 9x13", and I think you'll see why splitting the batter and fooling with 2 cake pans is unnecessary once you read step number 2...
  2. Once the cake cools (same day, next day, a week later, doesn't matter, just store the cake, preferably in the freezer if you are going to wait longer than a day or two), take a tub of icing, any flavor you think pairs well with the cake you made, and mash the cake together with the icing until well combined. For my spice cake, I used cream cheese frosting.
  3. Form into balls. I find that a #60 scoop gives balls that are a nice medium size. Then chill until firm, roughly 15-30 minutes.
  4. Dip in your choice of chocolate or candy coating wafers. Drizzle a garnish if you so desire.
This may look like a lot of work, but it goes quickly

Because my shower was fall-themed, I used the Wilton colored candy wafers in red, yellow, and orange. I always use candy wafers when dipping, because then I don't have to worry about melting fussy chocolate. I either use the vanilla candy coating in white or colors, or the dark chocolate flavored coating. I'm not a fan of the milk chocolate flavored coating, so I normally avoid it. To thin out the coating for dipping, I normally mix in about 2 cap-fulls of crisco oil per bag of wafers.

I'm not the best dipper. Obviously. But I've found that drizzling on a contrasting color normally camouflages an imperfections in the dipping because eyes focus on the stripes and not the background. To fit my theme, I used dark chocolate candy coating for the drizzle. The easiest way to accomplish this is to melt the wafers, put them in a small ziplock bag, and snip a tiny bit off of the corner, maybe 1/8". Then you can apply the drizzle with a side-to-side motion of the hand.

The great thing about these balls (other than the fact that they are a huge hit wherever they are brought) is that they are so versatile. There are so many possible flavor combinations, and so many possible decorating combinations. The possibilities may not be literally endless, but they are pretty impressive nonetheless. One batch also yields about 5 dozen cake balls, which makes them a perfect bring-along item, especially for holidays where you have multiple destinations. I highly recommend Bakerella's site for some absolutely incredible decorating ideas and inspiration.

As far as flavor combinations go, anything that works as a cake will work great for cake balls. The balls I made for my shower were spice cake and cream cheese frosting. I've also made:

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting dipped in vanilla wafers
Red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting dipped in vanilla wafers
German chocolate cake with caramel pecan frosting dipped in chocolate wafers
Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting dipped in chocolate wafers
Lemon cake with vanilla frosting dipped in vanilla wafers
White cake with white frosting dipped in chocolate wafers
Yellow cake with chocolate frosting dipped in chocolate wafers

You can also get creative with some additional mix-ins. This past Christmas, I made white cake with vanilla frosting and a package of shredded coconut, dipped in chocolate. They were amazing. I've gotten raves and recipe requests for all the above flavors, but my faves so far are the carrot and coconut cakes. Next on my list of flavors to try is a devil's food cake with homemade peanut butter frosting. Making homemade frosting slightly defeats the purpose of this easy-to-assemble recipe, but I think the taste will be well worth it. In the spring, I'd also like to experiment with banana cake (although I can't decide whether I should use chocolate, caramel, coconut pecan, or cream cheese frosting). Like I said, a lot of possibilities. And they can't go wrong. I mean, let's face it: they're cake. And icing. Even on their worst day, they'd be worth eating (so says the girl on a diet while she simultaneously cringes at that philosophy).