Apple and Sweet Chestnut Crifle

Sweet chestnuts are everywhere at this time of year. Walk in any park, anywhere in England, and you are likely to find yourself amid a carpet of spiky green chestnut cases. Crack them open (with your foot – it’s impossible to open them with your hands without getting spiked) and you will find… well, not exactly a bounty. The vast majority of sweet chestnuts that grow wild here just aren’t big enough to bother with. By the time you have roasted them, peeled them and removed the inner husk you are left with a few grams of nothing much.

To my delight, the other day we were walking the dog and happened upon a feast of good-sized sweet chestnuts. They were as fat as conkers so we filled our pockets – but what to do with them? Digging through the books I found a recipe for sweet chestnut and apple puree (thanks, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) which was delicious, but needed something else alongside it to make a proper dessert. My solution was to stew some more apples, get some creme fraiche to cut through the sweetness, and a handful of ready-made granola to add some crunch and create a store-cupboard delight that I’m sure Nigella would be happy with. It’s not quite a trifle, not quite a fool, and a bit like a trifle, so Crifle it is. You will probably need to buy some cooked whole chestnuts, but they are easily obtainable from supermarkets.

We love it, it didn’t last long.

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RECIPE – serves 8 as a dessert

For the chestnut and apple puree:

200g cooked chestnuts

300g eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced

25g unsalted butter

150ml apple juice

25g caster sugar

For the stewed apples:

3 medium eating apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1 cooking apple, peeled, cored and sliced

1 tbsp caster sugar

50ml apple juice

For the crifle:

200g creme fraiche

1 good handful of ready-made granola


METHOD 

If preparing your own chestnuts: heat the oven to 180C/ gas 4. Cut a cross in each chestnut (otherwise they will explode in the oven), place on a roasting tray and roast for 20 minutes. Upon removal from the oven, brace yourself and peel off the tough outer skins and lighter furry husks inside. Why do you have to brace yourself? Because it is impossible to peel them when they have cooled so you have to peel them hot, and it’s a bit painful! It is worth it though…

To make the chestnut and apple puree: put the chestnuts, apples, butter, apple juice and caster sugar into a saucepan, melt together and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring often, for about 20 minutes until the apples are soft. Allow to cool slightly then blitz to a puree using either a stick blender or a freestanding blender. Set aside to cool completely.

Now make the stewed apples: put all the apples, sugar and apple juice in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer for 15-20 minutes. The eating apples should be just soft, and the cooking apple should have reduced itself to a mush. Tip into the bottom of a glass trifle bowl, or similar, and allow to cool completely.

When the stewed apples and the puree are cool, spread the puree over the stewed apples in an even layer. Now spread the creme fraiche over the puree in another thin, even layer. Top with a good handful of granola, scattered all over the top.

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Spiced Sweet Potato Soup

There is always a vat of soup in our kitchen; it does for lunches, snacks and sometimes even dinner, on those days when exhaustion rules out anything more arduous than lighting the gas under a pot and putting some crusty bread on a board.

Having soup always available is a useful habit to get into; it means you will never, ever have an excuse for not eating when you’re hungry, and if you have unexpected visitors nothing can be more welcoming on a cold and blustery day than a cup of thick, warming soup. If you are new to cooking, making soups is arguably the best way to fast-track your understanding of how flavours combine to become more than the sum of their parts.

This is one of those soups that started with far fewer ingredients and grew over the years as I learned which flavours would accentuate and contrast the flavours already here. Try it for yourself; use this as a starting point and experiment a bit to make this your ideal soup – that’s the way to treat all recipes.

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RECIPE – serves 6-8

olive oil

3 large sweet potatoes (900g or so in total)

2 onions, chopped

4 garlic cloves, crushed

5cm knob of ginger, finely chopped

4 green birds-eye chillies, roughly chopped

1 tbsp garam masala

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 litre of vegetable stock

a handful of fresh coriander, stalks and leaves chopped separately

a 400 ml tin of coconut milk

the zest of a lime

1 tbsp fresh lime juice


METHOD 

Heat the oven to 200C/ gas 6.

Peel the sweet potatoes and chop into approximate 2cm cubes. Put into a large saucepan and drizzle 2 tbsp of olive oil over the potato cubes, then swirl and mix everything in the pan until all the cubes are lightly coated in oil. Tip onto one or two roasting trays; be careful not to crowd the cubes, you want them to roast and caramelise and they need a bit of space around them to do so. To ensure good roasting, spread the cubed potato into a single layer on each tray and ensure that they don’t touch eat other. Roast for 40-60 minutes until soft and they are just starting to caramelise and turn dark brown.

Meanwhile, using the same large saucepan you used to oil the cubed potato, heat 1 tbsp oil over a medium heat and add the onions. Gently saute them for around 10 minutes until they are soft and translucent, but not coloured. A little salt in the pan will assist the softening and delay any caramelisation.

Combine the garam masala, ground cumin, ground coriander and turmeric in a small bowl, add a little water, mix to a paste and put to one side for now.

When the onions are soft, add the garlic, ginger, and chillies. Cook for a minute or so, stirring regularly, then add the spice paste and stir thoroughly over the heat for a couple of minutes, ensuring that everything is completely coated in spice. Now add the stock and bring to a simmer; keep simmering until the sweet potatoes are ready, at which point scrape them off their roasting trays and into the simmering stock. Add the chopped coriander stalks, simmer for a further five minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to cool for a couple of minutes.

Using either a stick blender (my preferred option, just for the convenience) or a free-standing blender, blitz the soup to a smooth and even consistency – you will very likely need to add more water to loosen it. When it is completely smooth, put the soup back onto a moderate heat and add the coconut milk. Stir thoroughly and bring back to a gentle simmer, do not boil. Check and adjust the seasoning.

At this point you can either continue to finish the soup and serve it, or switch the heat off and leave it to stand for a few hours while the flavours develop even further.

When ready to serve, bring back to a simmer, add the lime zest and juice, stir well and serve scattered with chopped coriander leaves. You can make it even more impressive by adding a swirl of single cream and a scattering of cayenne pepper. Add a hunk of crusty farmhouse bread and it’s a filling, warming, feel-good soup for a winter morning, midday or evening.

Sea Salt Crackers

Every Saturday night in our house is pizza night. We make our own (of course) and you can find my recipe for pizza here. The trouble is, we’re never quite sure how many of our extended family will turn up to eat – our children have all grown up and moved out, and their plans always seem to change. As a consequence, I often have a portion or more of pizza dough left over; that’s no problem, it will happily rest in the fridge for a few days, and it freezes well but… Saturday is pizza night and I will always make a fresh batch of dough up on the day. So the unused pizza dough often gets thrown away; I find that offensive because it tastes lovely and it doesn’t deserve that fate.

Last night we had a cheese and biscuits night. It had been a long, busy and tiring day so I knocked up some Provencal biscuits then spotted a lonely portion of pizza dough in the fridge. Mmm, surely I can do something with this… I wonder.

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RECIPE 

a portion of pizza dough

olive oil

sea salt


METHOD 

Heat the oven to 230C/ gas 8

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pizza dough as thinly as you can, then leave it to rest for five minutes. Roll it again, then place it on a lightly oiled baking sheet (or on a silicon mat, in which case you can dispense with the oil). Scatter lightly with sea salt.

Using a pizza cutter, or a sharp knife, cut the pizza dough into four strips, then cut across those strips at an angle to make triangles – or something close, it doesn’t matter too much. There is no need to pull the cut pieces apart, they will pull away from each other as they cook.

Bake them in the hottest part of the oven for around 6 minutes; they will turn golden and crunchy, and puff up into little salty pillows. The picture above was taken immediately after they came out of my oven, and because they are just made of thin, crusty dough they don’t deflate.

They are delicious straight out of the oven, and almost as good a couple of hours later. They are great with cheese, good for dips and as part of a canape, mezze or tapas selection. Or you can just pick them up to nibble on, they taste great all by themselves.

I doubt they will keep well, but I didn’t get the chance to find out – we scoffed them all!

Mushroom Bourguignon with Butternut Mash

Very often, when I work from a recipe that I have found in a book, a magazine or online, I make it by following the recipe exactly, then I try to figure out how to improve it, and to learn from any mistakes that I have made. This means that, normally, I will have cooked a dish several times to iron out the wrinkles and make it as good as I possibly can before I will blog about it.

Not this one, I cooked it for the first time last night and it was such a delight that I don’t think it can be improved upon. It is a Nigel Slater recipe, and I strongly suspect that he has worked on it and perfected it before publishing it.  Whatever process he went through, he has absolutely nailed this one, and it is such a straightforward recipe that you can’t help but nail it as well.

This dish requires a whole bottle of red wine; you will never have sacrificed a bottle in a greater cause! There is one golden rule about cooking with wine: if you wouldn’t drink it then you shouldn’t cook with it. It is a crucial ingredient, and all dishes live and die by the quality of the ingredients.

This is an unintentional vegetarian dish, and can be made suitable for vegans by using olive oil rather than butter for the butternut mash and paying close attention to the type of wine, tomato puree and vegetable stock that you are using.

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RECIPE – feeds 4

For the marinade:

750g mixed mushrooms (brown chestnut, oysters, button etc)
1 tsp coriander seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 sprigs rosemary
500ml good red wine

For the bourguignon:

2 medium onions
olive oil
3 garlic cloves
2 small carrots
8 small shallots
2 tsp tomato purée
2 tbsp plain flour
250ml good red wine
250ml vegetable stock
a pinch of caster sugar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar

For the mash:

2 butternut squash
50g butter


METHOD 

Slice any large, thick-stemmed mushrooms into pieces the thickness of a pound coin, quarter any chestnut mushrooms and add them with whole button mushrooms into a large mixing bowl.

Crack the coriander seeds and peppercorns using a pestle and mortar, or grind them coarsely in a spice grinder. Tuck the bay leaves, thyme sprigs and rosemary among and under the mushrooms and add the ground coriander and pepper seeds. Pour the red wine over the mushrooms, cover with a lid or clingfilm, then leave for an hour to marinate.

Peel the onions, cut them in half, then slice each half into six segments. Put a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil into a deep, heavy-based casserole then add the onions and let them cook over a moderate heat, covered and stirring from time to time, until they are soft and golden. Allow 20 minutes for this.

Meanwhile, peel and thinly slice the garlic then stir into the onions. Scrub and top and tail the carrots, cut them into small dice, then stir into the softening onions and garlic. Peel the shallots, leave them whole and add them to the onions.

After 20 minutes, stir the tomato purée into the onion, garlic, carrot and shallot mixture and leave to cook, with the occasional stir, for 5 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the bowl – carefully leaving behind the other marinade ingredients – and add them to the onion mixture.

Cook for five minutes, you will see a lot of red wine liquor appear in the pan from the mushrooms, at this point scatter the flour over the surface and stir it in, let it cook on a high heat for a couple of minutes then pour in the red wine and stock, mix well but gently (don’t break up the mushrooms) then bring to the boil. Leave it to simmer gently for about 30 -40 minutes until the liquid is dark, thick and rich. Season with salt and pepper and use a pinch of sugar and a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar to correct and intensify the flavouring.

While the bourguignon is simmering, make the mash. Peel and roughly chop the butternut squash into 1.5 cm cubes and steam over boiling water for 20 minutes or so until it is tender. Crush into a saucepan using a potato masher or push it through a ricer, there is likely to be some liquid so apply a little heat to evaporate it off, then add the butter and  whip until it is light and fluffy. Season lightly and carefully and serve with the mushrooms. Scatter with a little chopped flat-leaf parsley to garnish.

Indonesian Coconut Fish Curry

What makes this curry very different from what you get in your local takeaway is the shrimp paste. The flavour that it adds to the dish is indescribable, at least by me. Together with the lime, lemongrass and coconut it makes something midway between a Thai curry and a Keralan curry, but different enough from both to be worth putting into a category all its own.

Shrimp paste is widely available in supermarkets, but if you do struggle to get it you will get an acceptable result by using one anchovy and a teaspoon of fish sauce. The result will still be lovely, but different. Please please please, make and use your own curry powder – it is dead easy and it makes an incredible difference to the finished dish. You will find my recipe here.

All it requires to complete it is some plain boiled or steamed Basmati rice. If you keep the woody parts of your lemongrass stalks, add these to the cooking water for a delicate citrussy edge to the rice. Delicious!

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RECIPE – feeds 2

1 tbsp ghee (or vegetable oil)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
a big piece of fresh ginger (4cm or so) finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tsp shrimp paste (or 1 anchovy and 1 tsp fish sauce)
4 birds-eye chillies, left whole but with a 1 cm slit in the side
2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed, soft parts finely chopped
I heaped tbsp curry powder
I tbsp jaggery (or dark muscovado sugar)
a bunch of fresh coriander, stalks finely chopped, leaves roughly chopped
1 tin of coconut milk
3 loins of cod, hake or other firm white fish, cut into large chunks
200g raw king prawns
finely grated zest and the juice of 1 lime


METHOD 

Prepare all your ingredients.

In a large frying pan, melt the ghee over a medium-low heat, add the onions and fry gently for 5 to 10 minutes until soft and translucent.

Add the ginger, garlic, chillies, lemongrass and shrimp paste. Cook for two minutes or so until aromatic and starting to take a bit of colour, then add the jaggery and curry powder. Cook on for a minute or so, keeping everything constantly moving so nothing catches, then add the coconut milk. Stir well and bring to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes.

At this point I like to turn everything off and let the sauce rest for a few hours. This softens the edge of the spices and makes everything more flavourful. However, you can carry straight on…

Add the coriander stalks and the white fish, simmer for three minutes and then add the lime zest, half the lime juice and the prawns. Simmer for a further two minutes then add the rest of the lime juice and scatter the coriander leaves over the top.

The fish and prawns should be just about cooked – don’t forget that they will cook on in the heat of the sauce.

Serve with plain steamed or boiled Basmati rice, flavoured with lemongrass stalks if you like.

Provencal Biscuits

I looked in the fridge yesterday and noticed that we had a LOT of cheese in there. All kinds: Roquefort, Danish Blue, Stilton, Cheddar, Red Leicester, goats’ cheese… I could go on, but you get the idea. This glut of cheesy comestibles gave me the perfect excuse to whip up these deliciously savoury little biscuits; they’re quick and easy to make and have a heavenly flavour – thanks to all the herbs that go in to the dough.

These stand head and shoulders above anything you can buy in a supermarket, and because they are so simple to make it doesn’t matter how inexperienced you are, they will also happily bear comparison with anything you can buy from an artisan bakery.

Dinner last night was twenty of these biscuits, a choice of cheeses, a simple green salad, chutney, vine tomatoes and grapes. At the end of it my wife said that we should put it into our regular meal rotation. Praise indeed.

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RECIPE 

100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting

100g plain wholemeal flour

1 tsp fine sea salt

1/2 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp dried basil

1 tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

75g fridge-cold butter, cubed

1 egg yolk

1 tsp Dijon mustard

3 tbsp ice-cold water


METHOD – makes about 20

Heat the oven to 180C/176C fan/Gas 4.

Line a baking tray with baking parchment. Combine the flours, salt, fennel, basil, rosemary and thyme in a food processor. Pulse once or twice to ensure everything is thoroughly mixed, then add the butter and pulse several times until the butter has been combined and the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Whisk together the egg yolk, mustard and water. Pour into the mixture while pulsing the processor, continue to pulse until the dough starts to come together. Take care not to overwork the biscuit dough as it will become tougher.

Empty the dough onto a lightly floured surface and, using your hands, bring it into a rough ball then gently knead it until it is homogenous and pliable. Roll it out until it is about 3mm thick (the thickness of a £1 coin), lifting and turning it regularly and dusting with flour underneath so that it doesn’t stick to your work surface.

Using a fluted pastry cutter – whichever size you have available that makes a biscuit the size that you want it, I tend to use one around 5cm in diameter – cut the dough out and place each biscuit on the baking parchment on the baking tray. These won’t spread so they can be placed quite close together.

Re-roll and use the dough trimmings to make as many biscuits as you can.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 20-25 minutes until they are firm and lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack and eat as soon as possible – though they will happily last for a few days in an airtight container.

Dutch Apple Cake

As with any classic recipe, there are probably hundreds of slightly varying versions of how to make a Dutch apple cake. The only test that matters is: does it taste good? This one does; I have been tinkering with it for a while and the absolute best version of it comes when it is made with duck eggs. They are fairly easy to obtain now and make a huge difference to cakes, perhaps because of the slight difference of the chemical make-up of the whites, but they give a lovely pillowy foam when whipped and make this cake featherlight.

Hens eggs are, of course, absolutely fine. The most crucial step here, whichever eggs you use, is to whip the eggs and sugar for at least 5 minutes in order to get as much air in to the mix as possible. It is also important to use the right size tin; I use a 30cm x 25cm baking dish that I normally use for lasagne – any smaller than that and the mix becomes a little too deep and requires longer to cook through, which in turn dries out the edges of the cake.

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RECIPE 

225g unsalted butter

3 duck eggs (or 4 medium hens eggs)

225g golden caster sugar

the zest of a lemon, finely grated

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

250g plain flour

1 heaped tsp baking powder

2 heaped tsp ground mixed spice

500g cooking apples (Bramley or similar)

25g flaked almonds

2 tsp cinnamon


METHOD

Heat the oven to 190C/170C fan/Gas 5.

Weigh out all of the ingredients. Melt the butter in a saucepan set over a low heat; set aside.

Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the eggs and 150g of the sugar together for at least five minutes until the mixture has expanded and is thick and smooth. The whisks should leave a thick trail when removed. You can use a stand mixer to do this while you get on with something else, but I find the hand whisk gets much more air into the mix.

Beat in the lemon zest and juice, then carefully drizzle the melted butter into the mix while whisking continually. The volume will decrease slightly, that’s okay and expected, the mix is now much heavier.

Now sift the flower, baking powder and ground mixed spice into the batter. Gently fold into the batter until it is just combined – take care to be gentle so you don’t knock the air out of the batter.

Grease your baking dish with butter, pour the batter into the dish and set aside while you prepare the topping.

Combine the flaked almonds, cinnamon and 50g of the sugar in a large bowl. Peel and core the apples, cut into eighths, then thinly slice the apples (1mm thick or so). Toss the sliced apple thoroughly in the sugar mix and then scatter over the top of the batter. Press down very lightly to get a more or less level topping, then sprinkle with the remaining 25g of the sugar.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 35-40 minutes until well risen and golden.

I love this with single cream, my wife loves it with custard. It’s easy to love…

Melanzane Lasagne

Is there anything more enticing than lasagne? A rich, unctuous sauce contrasting against a creamy bechamel, perfectly cooked pasta and lots and lots of cheese – even writing about it makes me want to go and make one.

There are many ways to fill a lasagne: mince, quorn, roasted vegetables of any and all types… I have made them all and I have loved them all. The idea for this particular version came while mulling over what to make for dinner one morning; for weeks I had been yearning for a lasagne but I had been too short on time to dedicate a couple of hours to it – to do it properly is a time-consuming business – and this particular day I had a real urge to have aubergine parmigiana. I also happened to have a fairly free afternoon, so I decided to combine the two ideas – to spectacular effect.

The not-so-secret to great food is packing in the flavour. Take special care with all the elements of a lasagne and you are guaranteed to impress; there is no getting around it though, making this is a bit of a faff but it is all very easy. Set aside a couple of hours so you’re not stressed, and just enjoy yourself. This is particularly good on a rainy, autumnal day so it may give you something to do when you don’t fancy going out on a miserable Saturday. That said, it’s also a bit of a treat on a sunny summer afternoon in the garden!

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RECIPE – Serves 6

3 large aubergines, cut into 1cm thick rounds

olive oil

1 tbsp dried oregano

For the tomato sauce:

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a handful of fresh basil, leaves picked and stalks finely chopped

125 ml marsala or madeira

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 tsp fish sauce

For the bechamel:

50g unsalted butter

50g plain flour

800 ml semi-skimmed milk

a small onion, roughly chopped

1 blade of mace, broken up

1/2 tsp black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

For the lasagne:

100g parmesan, finely grated

lasagne sheets

1 ball of mozzarella

a small handful of larger basil leaves


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/180C fan/Gas 6.

Prepare all the ingredients. Place the aubergine slices on a couple of roasting trays, drizzle each round lightly with olive oil, season, and scatter the oregano over the top. Roast in the centre of the oven for around 40 minutes until soft and golden. The skins of the aubergine may be a little hard and dry at this point; don’t worry, they will soften up when baked in the lasagne. Set the aubergine to one side for now.

While the aubergine is roasting, make your tomato sauce: splash a couple of tablespoons of olive oil into a large, cold pan and apply a medium heat. Add the garlic and basil stalks while it is warming up, and gently fry for a minute or so to infuse the oil with flavour. Add the marsala, fish sauce and chilli flakes. Turn up the heat to boil off the alcohol for a couple of minutes, then add the tinned tomatoes. Bring back to the boil, then simmer gently for 30 minutes or so to thicken it up.

By the time the aubergines are ready, so will be the tomato sauce. Remove from the heat and tear most of the basil leaves into the tomato sauce – reserving a small handful of the larger leaves for topping the lasagne. Stir thoroughly, season and set aside for now.

While the tomato sauce is reducing, make the bechamel: add the milk to a large pan with the onion, mace, peppercorns and bay leaf. Over a high heat, bring the milk to scalding point – this is where the milk is almost but not quite at boiling point. You should see the milk at the edge of the pan just start to bubble slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside for ten minutes.

Make a roux: melt the butter in a large pan, remove from the heat and whisk in the flour to make a thick paste. Put back on a medium heat and continue stirring for one minute until the roux bubbles, to cook the flour out. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a minute while you strain the onion, mace, peppercorns and bay leaf from the scalded milk.

Now, gradually and slowly, over a medium heat start to add the milk to the roux, whisking constantly and vigorously. Only add more milk when the previous addition has been thoroughly absorbed. When around half of the milk has been added and the texture of the sauce is smooth, add the rest of the milk and bring to the boil, stirring constantly. Boil for around two minutes until the sauce is glossy and completely smooth. Take off the heat and add 75g of the grated parmesan, stir thoroughly.

Now you can start to assemble the lasagne: in a large casserole dish drizzle with a little olive oil and spread it around with your fingers, then add a very thin layer of the tomato sauce. Now spread a layer of the aubergine rounds, a thin layer of tomato sauce, a layer of pasta, a layer of bechamel, then another layer of pasta. Continue to layer up in the same order, beginning with the aubergine, until the final layer of bechamel. Scatter the remaining parmesan all over the top, and dot it with torn mozzarella. Scatter the basil leaves, give it a good grinding of black pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Your lasagne should now look like this:

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Place on a roasting tray (the sauces are likely to bubble out and leave a sticky mess in your oven otherwise) and bake for 45 minutes until crisp and golden. Leave it to rest for 15 minutes before serving with a simple rocket salad.

I think I’m going to make another one tonight…