Sunday, 28 June 2009

Earl grey butter cookies

My sister is addicted to congolais. And by that I don't mean she has dated a string of guys from the Congo (Congolais in French) but that her life is dominated by a cone-shaped, yellowish pud of coconut and syrup that may, or may not, trace its origins back to the Congo.

This is not one of these subtle, layered, pastel-colored pastries the French are famous for the world over. This is a sticky mess of sugar and coconut. You thought fudge was sweet, bite into a congolais and feel coconut flakes seal your top and lower jaw together.

She has confessed to sometimes stockpiling the congolais because her favorite ones are from the subsidized cafeteria at her workplace (ah....France....sometimes I do miss you) and she obviously can't go there at the weekend (not because she wouldn't-- don't underestimate her-- but because it's closed). So she has sometimes been known to come home on Friday night with half a dozen congolais in her handbag.

Eager to free herself from her dependence on a single supplier, she tried to convince me, during my recent visit to Paris, to learn how to make the exact same congolais. Unfortunately I didn't have much time the day she was craving them (I was in Paris people! And just because I bake a lot of cookies doesn't mean I have lost all interest in shopping) and there was no coconut powder in my mom's cupboard so I tried to assuage my sister as I could: I made butter cookies. But because I was keen to show I was making an effort, I grandly decided to make earl-grey cookies. 

My initial instinct, to be completely honest, was to make matcha cookies, but that wasn't on hand -- my mom is not really one for exotic ingredients. However, a quick rummage through her kitchen revealed some heavenly scented earl grey tea from one of my favorite shops in Paris: The Mariage Freres. They have recently revamped their packaging and replaced the severe black tins with more appealing colors. The minute I saw the tin, I was determined to follow through, not so much for my sister -- whose frown as she watched me chop up my mom's best earl grey suggested a slight worry at the outcome of this experiment--but in pursuit of a pretty picture of the tin.

As you can see, I didn't relent. And although the sables obviously weren't as popular with the sis as the congolais, she did pack up half a dozen to eat the next day. So they can't have been bad. She is not one to waste a calorie on something less than delicious.

140g unsalted butter at room temperature
140g sugar (white or unrefined caster sugar, both work)
1 egg
280g flour (better to use white here so the cookies are crisp)
About four tablespoons chopped best earl grey loose tea

Cream butter and sugar together in a food processor (or with a hand whisk). If your butter is fridge cold and you can't wait for it to warm up, cut it in a few chunks and pop it in the microwave for 15 seconds.

Once the mixture is pale yellow, add the egg, your earl grey and then all the flour at once. Scrape everything together to form a ball. Do not overwork the dough. If it's too wet, add some flour. When you're happy with the texture, separate into two balls, flatten slightly and individually wrap in cling film. Put in the fridge for around 2 hours (or, again if you can't wait, 15 minutes in the freezer).

Spread some flour on your work surface.  Roll the dough out. You want it the thickness of a CD case. Thicker and it won't get crisp enough, thinner and it will fall apart when you're trying to peel it off your countertop. Using a wine glass or a cookie cutter, make circles. Put the cookies on a baking sheet and pop them in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes. You want to watch check after 6, however. These cookies must stay blond. When they're just beginning to color at their edges, take out and cool on a rack.

You can keep the cookies in a sealed tin or tupperware at room temperature for at least 5 days.

I find that they make great gifts too, love by parents and children alike. Just order some small transparent bags that you will tie with a string or a ribbon.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Seabass with potatoes and black olives

I have just come back from Rome, where I think I slightly overdid it on the seafood front. In fact, although I was there for only three days, I did manage to eat spaghetti with clams twice, a tartar of white fish three times and spiced tiger shrimps once. So much for not liking seafood growing up. The only non-fish-based dish I allowed to pass my lips was a simple and typically Roman pasta bomb called caccio e peppe. As soon I have figured out THE recipe (which seems to consist of little other than a particularly hard to source Italian cheese, lots of pepper, a dash of cream and a total disregard for caloric content), I promise I will share. In the meantime, be grateful that you might just slip away for your summer holiday in blissful ignorance of the corruptive power of this dish, still lithe enough to wriggle into your bathing suit.

I came back to London on Sunday night but have yet to shake off the seafood addiction. It continued merrily on Tuesday when, on my way back from a work-related event at Wimbledon --yes, I know, tough job-- I passed by a fishmonger selling some gorgeous-looking clams. Now, this would be nothing to swoon over in France or in Italy, but in the U.K. clams aren't that popular and can be difficult to come by. This was too good an opportunity to pass up and so that same evening I made spaghetti with clams, known as spaghetti alle vongole in Italian, once again. Unfortunately it couldn't be captured in all its steaming, parsley-scented splendor because it was wolfed down before I could remember where I had put the camera.

It was one of these evenings when the Neapolitan, determined to finish painting the ceiling in our new bathroom, wasn't to be vexed.  And there is no surer way of vexing an Italian than making him wait for his dinner.

Fortunately for you, I was really in a cooking mood this week and so last night I decided to rustle up a seabass with potatoes and olives. This is a dish popular throughout Italy, although perhaps most in Sardinia, and I have eaten it many times, but I have always felt jittery about making it at home. Although the Neapolitan has taught me several fish dishes, I still lack the confidence I have with meat. If you're in a similar position, trust me blindly, this dish doesn't fail.

This is ideal for a romantic dinner or when you have a few friends over. The reason I specifically say a few friends is that it can be difficult to fit more than two whole seabass in the shoe-box-sized ovens that are customary in most modern apartments. But if you're the proud owner of a gigantic oven, please don't let me stop you and invite a small Neapolitan family.

This recipe takes only moments to prepare and the result is impressive, both in taste and in presentation.
You could use fillets, saving yourself the hassle of cleaning the fish, but the dish would lose some of its glory and flavor. Using the whole fish also means you can then use the bones to make a fish broth that will come in handy for the seafood risotto recipe I will post later this week.

Ingredients (for four)
2 seabass, cleaned, but with the heads and tails left on. 
400g (1 pound) cherry tomatoes 
600g new potatoes
20 black olives (1 cup) pitted or not.
4 cloves of garlic
A glass of dry white wine
Olive oil

Wash the potatoes. There's no need to peel them. Slice them very thinly, as you would for a gratin dauphinois. Spread them at the bottom of an oven-proof porcelain dish large enough to comfortably fit your fish later on. Walsh and halve the cherry tomatoes. Sprinkle with maldon sea salt flakes and a good grind of pepper. Throw in a couple of cloves of garlic, pealed, and the black olives. Pour in the glass of white wine.

Bake in the oven at 200 degrees for 10 minutes. This step is necessary to make sure your potatoes aren't undercooked. Now add your fish and a splash of good quality olive oil. Cook in the oven for roughly 30 minutes. The easiest way to check that your fish is done is to insert the teeth of a fork near its central spine and seen if the flesh easily detaches from the bone. If it doesn't, pop back in the oven and check again in 5 minutes.

When it's cooked, take out the fish and serve the flesh on individual plates next to the potatoes in their lovely olive and tomato juice. Drizzle with best-quality olive oil.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Apricot Financiers

Here are little cakes I make just because I like telling the story of how they got their name.

Legend has it they were first sold at a bakery near the Paris stock exchange. Who knows what they were called then. I bet they didn't even have a name actually, and that hungry traders just gestured at them in the window and loudly asked for a dozen. As its popularity grew, the pastry took on the name of its top customer:  the financier.

Little gold bars of butter and almond. What a fitting treat for the whealers and dealers of the day.

There are infinite variations on the basic recipe, but in general I think berries and apricots work best. A very unscientific poll of some of my most loyal fans revealed that their favorite is the raspberry and matcha one. (You can find matcha powder at specialized Japanese shops.)

You will read in some cookbooks that you need to grind your own almonds, sift the almond powder with the flour and the confectioner's sugar (the way you do for macarons) and slowly cook your butter until it takes on a nutty flavor. I don't bother. I'm not suggesting here that these steps are entirely useless, but I believe they have only a marginal utility. Is it worth spending an extra 15 minutes on this recipe to make it 15% better? You decide.

The perfectionists among you --you know who you are--will likely give it a shot.

I, meanwhile, will have a cup of tea.

120g of almond powder
170g butter
140g confectioner sugar
40g flour
4 egg whites

Silicon financier mould (you can also use muffins ones, half filled or mini loaf cake tins, again half filled)

Melt the butter over low heat in a small pan or in the microwave (should take less than a minute at full power). In a separate bowl, mix the almond powder, the sugar and the flour. Add the egg whites (unbeaten).

Wash, halve and pit the apricots. Slice them along the shorter side (otherwise the slices will be too long to fit in the individual moulds).

Pop in the oven at 180 degrees for 20 minutes.

Perhaps the most important step. Cool on a rack so the edges get deliciously crisp.

Financiers will last five days in a tupperware container.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

My grandma's cherry clafoutis

The first cherries hit the market last week. I noticed them immediately, heaped chest high at every stall in their bright crimson dress. I heard them whisper sweet nothings to sun-craved shoppers, promising to conjure a thousand summer memories in a single juicy bite.

I, however, am not one to be swayed by pretty cherries. I shot a quick glance over my shoulder at the Neapolitan, found him lost in his weekly, quasi-mystical contemplation of the window display of the nearby DYI shop, and thought it safe to spurn the cherries.

At my usual fruit stall, to each cockney-accented ‘Wot can I get you luv?’, I replied merrily ‘a pound of apricots, half a dozen peaches, a pint of raspberries, stuffing the trolley to bursting point with my favorite summer fruit. Cherries, I’m afraid, didn’t make the cut.

For you see, while the Neapolitan and I pride ourselves on our agreement over life’s bigger questions—notably the superiority of Italian gelato to American ice cream and that of his aunt’s parmiggiana to many competitors’ I can’t name here for obvious reasons-- we stand irreconcilably apart on cherries. He loves them. I don’t.

Now obviously I could buy cherries to please him –and I often do—but a part of me always resists the purchase, particularly early in the season, when I think they’re overpriced and there’s so much other lovely fruit to be had.

I was having such a day, and thought I had gotten away with it, when a sharp poke in the back and an urgent “did you get me some cherries?” confirmed that Italian men do actually have eyes in the back of their heads.

Anyway, we ended up with the cherries. How good they were, I’m afraid we will never know, because by the time we remembered them they had spent a very rough weak at the bottom of our overzealous fridge. I was about to bin them, when I remembered the only time I have ever liked cherries: in my grandmother’s clafoutis.

I don’t have a go-to clafoutis recipe, so I called her. Do not be mad at me for the vague measurements, be mad at her. All I can say is that it’s an invitation to trust your instincts a bit.

600 g cherries
1 large glass of full fat milk
1 large glass of flour
1 smaller glass of sugar (I used a bit less)
1 tablespoon of rum
Three eggs

A hair pin
A ceramic pie dish

It is up to you whether or not to pit the cherries but if you have children at the table you may want to just to make everyone's life easier. It is a pain, but with the hair pin, you will get it done. I have no idea whether this is the proper way of operating the pin, but it’s the way that got me through the 600 grams of cherries in roughly 15 minutes.

Insert the pin as near to the cherry stalk as possible, go in deep, circle the pit to detach it from the flesh. Take the pin out, press the butt of your cherry, the pit will burst out. Well done. For those of you addicted to kitchen gadgets, my lovely neighbor Anna assures me there is a cherry pitting device out there. She owns one.

Once the pitting is done, you’re laughing. Beat the three eggs with the sugar until frothy. Progressively add the flour and then the eggs and the rum. Keep whisking to avoid lumps.The batter should be a little more liquid than a pancake batter. If it’s not, just add a bit more milk. If it’s too runny, add some flour. Pop into the oven at roughly 200 degrees for 35 minutes or until puffed up and golden.

Serve warm, if you can.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Rice pudding and apricot compote

We have just had a few very bleak, wet days in London. Nothing unusual for this time of year but enough to make you feel that those sandals belong back under the bed, or wherever else you store them for 51 weeks a year. This means just one positive thing: comfort food is allowed, if only because bathing-suit season currently seems so distant that all resolutions to swap crumbles for sesame right cakes have been swiftly abandonned.

Still, I felt a bit guilty so I told myself that I would make rice pudding, because rice, you know, is healthy, never mind that it is the white Italian pudding variety I am using here rather than the organic wholesome brown one. The oriental twist, via the splash of rose or orange water, is just an excuse to further my exploration of the Middle Eastern corner shops in my new neighborhood. Unsalted pistachios, cardamon pods, pomegranate syrup, I bet you will see them again around here in the next few weeks.

One final word, on apricots. I know they can be sour, or worst, insipid. Fortunately there's no need to find exceptional ones for this recipe, for it will transform even the blandest fruit into a miraculous burst of summer.

Set aside 45 minutes for this recipe, so you're not rushed, altough I promise you won't be actively occupied by it for more than 20. And while the rice cooks in the milk, well, you could, in the spirit of this post, have some fresh mint tea.

This recipe is from Claudia Roden's marvellous Arabesque cookbook. It serves six moderate eaters or four greedy ones.


Rice pudding
200g Italian round Italian rice or pudding rice (you can use risotto rice)
350 ml water
1 litre half-skimmed milk
150g sugar or to taste
1 tablespoon rose or orange water

Apricot compote
1kg apricots
200ml water
150g sugar
1 lemon

First boil the rice in the water until it is absorbed. Beware not to let it burn. It can happen very quickly once the water has been absorbed. Reduce the heat to a simmer and pour the milk. Let the mixture bubble along until the rice is soft but some liquid is left (roughly 30 minutes) You are striving to achieve, more or less, the consistency of a risotto. Stir in the sugar until disolved and add the rose or orange water. If the pudding seems too dry, add splash of milk at the end, as when the rice cools down it will absorb some of the excess liquid. You want it to be gooey. That's the best rice pudding.

While the rice is cooking, get on with the apricote compote. Rinse the fruit, stone it and cut it in half. Put it on a low heat in a heavy-bottomed pan (Le Creuset or imitation will work fine) with the sugar, the water and the lemon juice. I have reduced the water from the original recipe but if you feel you need it, by all means, add another half glass. You should stop cooking the compote just when the apricots are falling apart.

Spread the rice pudding in a serving dish and spoon some compote on top. This dessert can be eaten hot or cold. For texture, I would consider adding chunks of unsalted pistachios, but that's just me. I think pistachios go with everything.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Raspberry Tiramisu

Let me speak the truth about tiramisu. I am the first to admit it's got a lot going for it. Halfway between a cake and a pudding, it suits most occasions, be it a simple holiday meal or an elegant dinner party. It works in the winter, after a stew of root vegetables, but also rounds off an alfresco summer dinner beautifully. On the practical front it's a doddle to make, requiring no oven and the dirtying of only one dish (More in a follow-up post about that great kitchen skill observed only in women and which consists of getting a meal on the table without soiling three bowls, two pans, 12 wooden spoons and the impossible-to-clean mixer robot)

Coming back to the tiramisu, its single biggest asset, in my mind at least, is that everyone always loves it. That dessert is the blockbuster of all puddings, the Star Wars of sweets. It doesn't flop. You may have eaten it a hundred times before and know exactly how the plot of creamy mascarpone will combine with the coffee-gorged biscuits to dissolve into velvety smoothness, and yet you will grin stupidly when it appears on the table, grateful that familiarity doesn't always breed contempt.

And still, I don't make tiramisu. In 15 years of experimenting in the kitchen with all sorts of sweet delights ('douxdelices'). I have never made one. Something always stops me. I don't have mascarpone. I don't own the right dish. I forgot it needs to be made at least a day in advance and now I only have three hours before my guests arrive. None of these are good, or honest reasons.

So here goes the truth. Everyone can make a tiramisu. That is the sad sad truth. My competitive streak in the kitchen is what has deprived my dear friends of tiramisu for so long. But I am happy to declare that these days are now over, for by swapping a few ingredients so no Italian would tolerate it being called a tiramisu, I have made the concoction my own. Call it what you like. It is as much a trifle or a pavlova as a tiramisu, but I think of it as the latter because I first got the inspiration for it from Nigela Lawson's white tiramisu recipe in How to Eat.

I generally find the pairing of fruit and almonds impossible to resist. Here the almond flavor is provided by the amaretto but I supposed you could also use almond essence or a different liquor entirely. I think Baileys, 
Rum or blackberry cream would work well too.


18 Italian savoiardi (or sponge biscuits)
Store-bought meringues
2 eggs, separated
400 g
120g sugar (I used organic unrefined caster sugar, which works fine although it's not white)
250 ml full fat milk
5 tablespoons amaretto (Italian almond-flavored liquor)
300 g raspberries

Choose a dish that can fit 9 savoiardi in single layer. It doesn't have to be square, you can use a salad bowl as long as its base is wide enough to fit the biscuits. Using a whisk, beat the yolks with the sugar until creamy. Gradually fold in the mascarpone, still using the whisk to avoid any lumps. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until firm. Using a wooden spoon, add to the mascarpone mixture.
Mix the amaretto and the milk in a soup plate. Soak each savoiardi for a few seconds. Be quick, you don't want them to get mushy. Line your dish with 9 savoiardi. On top of them, spread a third of your mascarpone mixture. Add a layer of crumbed meringue. Alternate one more time savoiardimascarpone and meringues. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge for at least 4 hours, better a whole day.

Just before you're ready to serve, take the dish out of the fridge, spread the rest of your mascarpone cream on top of the concoction. Add more meringue crumbs and your raspberries.