I suppose I should really stop teasing with my illusions to an epic weekend of baking and actually talk about what I made shouldn’t I?
Well, it started with Sausage Rolls, we had sausages that needed using up, and in my quest for a recipe to cook them up, I remembered that Sausage Rolls were on my list and not knowing how much puff pastry I’d need grabbed a big pack on my late night supermarket run. (For reference a 1KG pack is too much – I fed a family of three twice, plus lunch for two and still managed a one-person fake-pie for myself on the Monday night!) So having successfully managed sausage rolls, I had a dig through my recipe books in search of something to use up the rest of the pastry. I stumbled across a recipe that struck straight to my childhood nostalgia – vol-au-vents. But what to put in them? The recipe called for feta cheese and pomegranate and in my opinion vol-au-vents should be hot with an equally hot filling. Handily my mum was making ham soup so I pinched some of the meat, she made a nice white sauce and a tasty filling was born.
If I had issues about ‘proper’ baking with the sausage rolls, they were nowhere to be seen with the vol-au-vents. Perhaps it was the cutting out and construction work involved in putting them together, but they definitely felt like ‘real‘ baking. I do take a couple of issues with the recipe as written though. First up, why get rid of the inner circles? Bake them separately and they make cute little hats/lids for the vol-au-vents, judicious application of the rolling pin would doubtless resolve the overly puffed result I got. Secondly, once they’ve been in the oven it tells you to cut out the puffed up centres and discard – cut them out certainly, but they squash down easily enough under the weight of the filling, and if you really want to remove them they make a tasty treat for the peckish cook. Particularly tasty, I find, with mashed potatoes and broccoli.
While I had the oven on and was using up things in the fridge, I made some Spinach and Cheese (Cheddar, Parmasan and Cream-cheese to be precise) Muffins. These are an old tried and tested favourite of mine and make an excellent savoury breakfast. A wee 30 second blast in the microwave before eating re-melts the cream-cheese nicely. Handily they also cook in the oven at the same temperature as the vol-au-vents, so I was able to whip them up while the vol-au-vents were chilling/resting in the fridge and stick them both in together.
Well, at least one of my foodie resolutions is going well. So far this year I’ve baked three times, which is the same amount that I managed all year in 2014 and its only March! Today I want to talk about the two items I made that were also on my big 30 recipes list (I’m now up to 23 recipes tried) which is an extra kind of progress.
Technically one of those baking incidents was actually two because it was across the Friday and Saturday of an epic weekend of baking. Why am I calling it one baking incident instead of two? Well it’s silly really, but when it comes down to it, as a novice cook, determined to learn to cook properly there’s a lot of snobbery out there about ‘cheating’ at cooking. (Bless Delia Smith for her campaigning against this kind of nonsense, I may not want to cook her recipes but, she’s a kitchen legend for a reason.) I stand by my statement that life’s too short to make your own puff pastry, yet still that little niggly voice says ‘well, its not really baking, is it’. Which is nonsense. Between pummelling the pastry into submission so they didn’t attempt to take over the world, carefully trimming the sausages to fit perfectly, and making sure the rolls stuck together properly, it certainly felt like baking. Also I suspect I’ve ruined their mini frozen cousins for myself which to me is always a sign that I’ve done some proper cooking. Next stop learning to make my own veggie sausages for them!
The other bake that I want to talk about is the batch of Bite-size Pinwheel Snacks that I made as a Cheerio Biscuits for my workmates on my last day working there. Normally when recipes say ‘tiny’ or ‘bite-size’ they aren’t even close – and make you wonder about the size of said chef’s mouth – but these actually are, perfect when you’re baking for a team of people where at least half of them are on diets. They are a bit of a challenge though they actually look more complex than they are. The mixture is really quite dry (not an egg in sight!) and I was quite worried for a while about it coming together until I thought to just get my hands in there and knead it into submission (you add the chocolate to half the mixture by kneading it in so I figured that it couldn’t hurt) after which it behaved much better. They turn out to have a pleasantly short-bready texture to them, which I enjoy. Due to not actually liking chocolate as a child – I’m still much more a crisp hand even now – baked goods in my childhood were chocolate free and it mostly doesn’t occur to me to use it when I’m baking myself now. To the extent that when I came to having to buy cocoa powder and was faced with the range of options I plumped desperately for the ones I’d seen in my Inverness flatmate’s cupboard – he made really good chocolate brownies, alright! So this was actually my first attempt at cooking with chocolate and my goodness you get in a glorious mess! Oddly enough the most frustrating bit of the process isn’t weighing and dividing the mixture or even rolling the two batches together like a swiss-roll, but having to chill the mixture in the fridge for half an hour – twice! The first time was fine, it gives you time to do the dishes, but second time round I’d run out of things to do. Definitely one to do on days when you’re making several different things. Mine weren’t as neat and tidy as the recipe-book picture, but I’m sure I’ll get tidier with practice.
The other week, I had a particularly productive weekend on the culinary front. As part of that productivity I knocked another recipe off my 30 recipes list, making Lazy Mini Sausage Rolls on Friday night. (With, I must confess, shop bought puff pastry, because as much as I want to learn to make short-crust pastry, having watched lots of different chefs make puff pastry I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a faff and life is too short to make your own puff pastry.) Afterwards I went to update my recipe list and realised that I’d actually made a few other things off the list that I’d never written about here, and felt it was high time I rectified that. This winter I appear to have been making a serious attempt to rehabilitate the humble cauliflower. I have a bit of a mixed history with Cauliflower, as generally whenever I get it – unless my mum makes it – it’s either under-cooked and a bit ‘teugh’ or so overcooked it fall apart and tastes bitter and watery. Cauliflower cheese is usually safe from overcooking but can be disaster if someone decides to skimp on the sauce. Yet done right, its delicious – plus its really cheap at the moment, you get a lot of veg for your pennies – so with a couple of tasty sounding recipes in hand I set out to rediscover the joys of cauliflower. First up I went back to basics. Years ago, when I was first teaching myself to cook beyond the basics, my mum loaned me one of her OXO cook books which I cooked my way through during my masters with…varied success that was more to do with my inexperience than the quality of the recipes. Recently I’ve been working my way through her other OXO cookbook, which is essentially the comfort food of my childhood. Something that definitely wasn’t a staple of my childhood is the lentil and cauliflower largely because it calls for the inclusion of a couple of their ‘Indian Herb & Spice’ cubes. Which, as much missed and lamented as their Italian and Chinese cubes are in our household, the Indian ones were, well, a crime against the subtle nuances of good Indian cookery is harsh and not a little poncy sounding, but you get the idea. So without that particular sledgehammer to hand I had to make up the spicing as I went along. Not withstanding the need to refine the spice usage, curry is an excellent way to eat cauliflower; the slow simmer ensures it’s lovely and tender, while the flavours and spice ensure it is far from bland. Next up, I made cauliflower soup – I’ve tasted a decent number of tasty cauliflower and cheese soups over the years so I reckoned soup was a safe bet. At the start of last year I read an interesting piece by Nigel Slater – reading the food section of the Guardian on my lunch breaks at work has been a feature of many of my less exciting modes of employment over the years – on interesting new ingredients to consider adding into your repertoire. This particular soup was included in the article as an example of a different way to use Ras-el-Hanout – better known for its role in Moroccan cooking, particularly in tagines – and having been given a tagine for my birthday and purchased this not cheap spice mix it seemed a good confluence of elements. It turns out that boiling cauliflower in milk is an excellent plan, and depending when you add the Ras-el-Hanout depends whether you eat a rich and spicy soup or a smoother soup with a pleasant kick to it. The toasted flaked almonds to garnish are worth the effort, but croutons would work just as well if you had them in the cupboard instead. Not involving cauliflower, but no less tasty and warming, I also made Poached Pears in Sake. I have a long and affectionate – if idiosyncratic – relationship with Japanese food. (For example, one of my friends, with whom I have a longstanding monthly arrangement for Monday night sushi, regales her workmates with tales of going for sushi with the friend who introduced her to sushi and who doesn’t eat fish…) My attempts to cook my own have been mixed, but I came across a Wagamama cookbook in my local Oxfam bookshop and decided to take the leap. I keep planning to make things out of it and either chickening out or not having the time to make all the little bits. However, there was an unexpected glut of pears in January – why? Who can tell, but my dad and I came home from two separate supermarkets with large bags of pears like bricks for 20p – and that seemed a sign to poach some pears like nothing else. I confess to being a little excited to finally break open the mirin and star anise I had in the cupboard and use them in a tasty fashion. I’ve never made a chocolate sauce and it was rich and glorious with the pairs, though I should note that they work equally well served with cream if you enjoy the hot pear with cold accompaniment sensation. I personally prefer a hot accompaniment but I suppose if you wanted a less rich accompaniment custard would make a tasty, if less authentically Japanese version.