Mole Poblano with turkey – in the dark

Like most other people in our culture, the last week has been Über-indulgent, with the excuse of festivities being used to indulge in copious quantities of meat, cheese and fizz, in particular. I have enjoyed seeing friends and relaxing over good (and very rich) food, however,  I am now almost at The Grinch stage and I must admit that I have been eyeing up the tree with a view to taking it down and am looking forward to getting back to the normal routine that the New Year will bring.  I miss running, and haven’t been out for over 2 weeks, although this has been enforced due to flu before Christmas, and lingering symptoms.

We Scots are supposed to know how to really show the world how to bring in the New Year with our partying and hospitality on Hogmanay.  Hmmm.  My gasket is well and truly blown, so I think I’ll pull the chair up in front of the fire and stare wistfully into the flames for the rest of the evening.

Welcome back wind

It has been a very atypical and surreal weather year in the Outer Hebrides, with the notable absence of wind being, quite frankly, disconcertingly abnormal.  And so it was, a poor forecast and severe weather warning at the start of the weekend heralded the arrival of the Hebridean gales we know and love.  Sometimes.

Before the wind picked up, we walked round the garden and did a check that there was nothing lying around that would sail off as the wind speed increased.  Polytunnel door closed.  Check.  Cold frames latched down.  Check.  Ash pan for the fire empty.  Check.  This is particularly important because we have had many a ‘Big Lebowski moment’ as we end up wearing the ash, trying to empty the ash pan in the wind. We only burn peat, hence the bright orange ash can leave you looking like a belisha beacon, hair coated in fine orange ash, and sneezing.  A lot.

Despite the wind getting up to about 60 mph, gusting to about 80 mph, our intrepid friends arrived for dinner and it was a great relief that the power stayed on without a flicker. Due to the southerly direction of the wind, we also managed a record-breaking lounge temperature as the stove was totally out of control – an amazing 23C!

Damage limitation

The next day, the wind dropped a bit, we sustained no damage but we found our neighbour’s fence had blown down.  They were away and there were sheep in the garden.  Together with our other neighbour (we only have 2 neighbours remotely near us), sheep were herded from the garden and back onto the common grazing, we did what we could to the very exposed fence to brace it in place before the wind got up again as forecast. Our neighbours have a lovely garden, veg and ornamental and it would have been awful to see it trashed by sheep.

The sheep on the common grazings around the house are very tame hooligans and will take any opportunity to access gardens and tasty grass/plants/trees within.  They are also very quick and we cannot even leave our gate open for half an hour without finding a few have sneaked in. They are also completely unperturbed by the dogs and I frequently find Darwin standing at the gate, a flock of sheep on the other side, each staring steely eyed at the other in some kind of Mexican stand-off, usually just before Darwin gets frustrated, emits one sharp bark and the sheep momentarily scatter.

One of the most dangerous acts to partake in here is to wander onto the common grazing with a plastic bag that vaguely resembles a sheep feed bag.  All sheep within the vicinity spot you, do their sheepy thing, bleating and charging at you like a single amorphous, off-white entity and trample you in a bid to access what is in the bag, as it MUST be sheep nuts.

My neighbour swears that one of the local sheep looks like Margaret Rutherford.  The Man Named Sous agrees with this identified resemblance and can spot ‘Margaret’.  I’m not so sure myself…

Mole Poblano with turkey

Safely back in the kitchen and having escaped the vagaries of the gales and sheep, the turkey swan song took the form of mole poblano.  Mole poblano de guajolote, to give the dish its full title is the national dish of Mexico (although mole simply means sauce).  I had the Mexican food bug again after visiting Lupe Pintos deli and stocking up on ingredients, and also reading Mexigeek blog that I follow on Facebook, where there are a series of informative posts about this dish and which helped to inspire me to give it a try, as well as reading some variations in Thomasina Mier’s Wahaca cookbook – ‘Mexican Food at Home’.  So, with that I embarked on my own freeform mole recipe.

The dish appears to commonly contain upwards of 20 ingredients of varying quantities, and I am certain no two moles are the same, and it would be difficult to re-create exactly each time.  That is why I like it so much, as well as for the chilli and the fragrant and aromatic nature of the dish enhanced by nuts, spices, chocolate and sometimes fruit too. The seeds and ground almonds add texture and thicken the sauce, as does the bread.  Stale corn tortilla is also typically added, but I had none, so went with the bread.

Ingredients

2 tomatoes, roasted

2 onions, roasted

6 cloves garlic, roasted

1 dried ancho chilli, toasted and rehydrated

2 dried pasilla chillis, toasted and rehydrated

2 dried mulato chillis, toasted and rehydrated

30g pumpkin seeds

6 allspice berries

6 black peppercorns

15g sunflower seeds

40g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

4 cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp coriander seeds

1tsp cumin seeds

1/2 tsp aniseed seeds

50g ground almonds

1 slice of stale bread

sprig of oregano

turkey, Christmas day leftover bits

turkey stock, enough to get the right sauce consistency

pinch of salt

Mole ingredients

Method

Chillis – dried pasilla, ancho and mulato prep

  • First, prepare the three types of dried chillis, discard the stem, cut them in half,  keep the seeds.
  • Heat a dry, heavy based frying pan to a medium heat and add the chillis.  Toast briefly on each side, about 20 seconds until they begin to release their aromas, do not burn as this will taint the mole.
  • Soak in boiling water for 20 minutes (seeds too) to rehydrate

Rehydrating the dried pasilla, ancho and mulato chillis

Rehydrating the dried pasilla, ancho and mulato chillis

  • Next, dry fry the spices and grind them and put these with the chillis in a food processor.
  • Put the rest of the ingredients in except the chocolate and turkey.  Blitz to a fine paste, adding just enough turkey stock to create a thick paste.
  • Transfer to a saucepan and warm before adding the chocolate.  Be sure to add a little at a time to ensure the mole is balanced as too much chocolate will overpower and spoil the balance of flavours. Adjust the seasoning, add more stock, if required and stir in the turkey pieces. The mole was pretty hot when just made, but mellowed significantly by the next day when we ate it.

Mole before adding turkey

Mole before adding turkey

Finishing touches – accompaniments

I can’t resist turning any Mexican meal into a bit of a banquet.  I made some guacamole – mandatory with any Mexican meal, added some tortilla chips bought in Lupe Pintos, natural yoghurt, basmati rice and flour tortillas – and margaritas, of course.

As I was rolling the final flour tortilla, inexplicably and without so much as a flicker of a warning, the power went off, even though the wind speeds had dropped to about 30 mph. This brought an entirely new perspective to the description of a dark mole. Fortunately, the rice was cooked, but despite our best efforts with the frying pan on top of the stove, it just wasn’t hot enough for the flour tortillas to cook, so we resigned ourself to eating in the dark without them.  Presentation was perhaps not the finest, but what the hell, the atmosphere was just right.

Dark mole is served

Dark mole is served

Festively nutty

Of all the meals I prepare over the festive period, Christmas day dinner is often the simplest, most relaxing and least taxing.  The objective of the day is to be as sedentary as possible (almost sessile if I could manage it), chill out, dogs snoring at our feet in front of the stove while we read and listen to music or the radio (glass of fizz in hand, of course).  It is quite an unusual event for us to sit down for any length of time and relax and to be honest, I never find it easy to sit still for very long.

Hence, a roast bird, in this case a free range bronze turkey was the very traditional choice.  For one thing, nothing could be easer to cook, get your prep and timing right, and there is very little to attend to until gravy is required while the bird is resting.  Ideal.  Turkey is also still something of a novelty for us since we have only been post-vegetarian for the last few years, so it still retains its annual appeal. We prepared minced meat stuffing from the venison we butchered earlier in the year, as well as chipolatas, so there was little prep required, except a few roasters and veg – what we had available in the storage and the garden.  Sadly, this is the end of our stored carrot supplies, but a fitting one.

Carving the bronze turkey - showing the contrast with the rich, dark venison stuffing.

Carving the bronze turkey – showing the contrast with the rich, dark venison stuffing.

I am not about to recount how one should go about roasting turkey and trimmings for the traditional meal on Christmas day – that has been done to death with a plethora of never-ending tips and suggestions being available about this subject everywhere you look online.

The real challenge on Christmas Day for us is not that of cooking the meal but an exercise in moderation.  We almost achieved this, although a sensible but difficult decision was taken to omit cheeseboard. What a couple of lightweights we have become!

The dogs also got the opportunity to appreciate Christmas dinner – the one day in the year when they get to eat something else other than their own food. It was very difficult to get them to sit for this photo as Darwin (at the front) kept enthusiastically swinging his paw up in a powerful left hook to indicate he was ready to receive!

Hector and Darwin's christmas meal. Please Sir, can I have some more?

Hector and Darwin’s Christmas meal. Please Sir, can we have some more?

Hazelnut Heaven

The favoured nut featured in a somewhat makeshift dessert of bits and pieces, which turned into an unintentioned Hazelnut-Fest.  The highlight was our favourite ice cream, one for which I am eternally grateful for discovering in David Leibovitz’s book ‘The Perfect Scoop’, the quintessentially Italian Gianduja – hazelnut and milk chocolate. This is the only ice cream I find difficult to stop eating.  It is super-smooth, rich, creamy sumptuous and decadent.

Gianduja Gelato

Traditional gianduja chocolates, with the same basic mix of hazelnuts and good quality milk chocolate contained in this ice cream, are made in the Piedmont region of Italy where some of the world’s most flavoursome hazelnuts are grown. Even if you don’t have an ice cream maker, if there is any ice cream worth the effort of hand churning, it is this one to re-create the lush flavours of this Italian classic. Make sure you source good quality milk chocolate with at least 30% cocoa solids.  The Co-op’s own Fairtrade milk chocolate works well and is 30%. The original recipe suggests discarding the nuts after infusing, but this is wasteful and keep them to include in a cake.

Ingredients

185g hazelnuts

250ml whole milk

500ml double cream

150g sugar

1/4 tsp coarse sea salt

115g milk chocolate, chopped

5 large egg yolks

1/8 tsp vanilla extract

Method

  • Toast the hazelnuts in the oven at 170C for 10-12 minutes, let them cool and rub off most of the papery skins with a tea towel.
  • Blitz them in a food processor until quite finely ground.
  • Warm the milk with 250 ml of the cream, sugar and salt in a pan.  Once warm, remove from the heat and add the hazelnuts.
  • Cover and let the nuts infuse in the mixture for at least an hour (I sometimes leave this for several hours to intensify the flavours).
  • Chop the milk chocolate and put in a bowl.  Heat the remaining 250ml of cream until almost boiling and pour over the chocolate, stir until it melts into the cream. Set a sieve over the top of the bowl.
  • Pour the hazelnut-infused milk through a sieve into a pan, squeezing the nuts to extract all the flavour. Re-warm this mixture.
  • Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and slowly pour the warm hazelnut mixture over the yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the mix back into the pan.
  • Stir constantly over a medium heat with a spatula until the mix thickens to coat the spatula.
  • Pour the thickened mix through the sieve and onto the cream and milk chocolate mix, add the vanilla.

Cool over ice and refrigerate before churning either by hand or using an ice cream maker.

For the ultimate hazelnut overdose, I served the gianduja ice cream with my home-made muscovado and hazelnut meringues and Frangelico, hazelnut and cranberry biscotti (recipes will be subject of future post).  I added a Lindors hazelnut praline chocolate on the side and accompanied the whole indulgence with Frangelico hazelnut liqueur.  OTT hazelnut heaven.

Hazelnut paradise

Hazelnut paradise – gianduja ice cream and assorted hazelnut accompaniments.

Festive Fiery chocolate truffles – with Tequila?

I have just returned home having been away for 10 days or so on a pre-Christmas  circumnavigation of Scotland, visiting family and friends, As ever, we try to cram in a lot (possibly too much) while we are away, including the inevitable Christmas shopping. It has a plus side at this time of year when we have the excuse to indulge in luxury items from the likes of Valvona and Crolla and Mellis Cheese shop in Edinburgh. We managed to squeeze in an overnight and some fine dining at the Michelin starred The Peat Inn, Cupar (to be reviewed in due course), and I roamed the Stirling foothills trying to find the right farm to collect our bronze free range turkey for Christmas dinner.

Good to be back home after so much frenetic activity of an extraordinary sort, although the temperature in the house of 9C has taken some time to get to a balmy 19C. Festivities are upon us, the tree is up, at last, and some amaretti biscuits are in the oven.  The view from the kitchen window at 1600 hours yesterday served to remind me just what a big sky Uist has (I just don’t notice it in quite the same way on the mainland), and how I missed the tranquility of home.

View from our kitchen window - temple, sunset, sheep

View from our kitchen window – temple, sunset, sheep

As ever, while visiting my parents, my mum came up with some fine recipes – a casserole of pork cheeks with prunes, a refreshing lime parfait, which it might have been good to consume after her chilli chocolate truffles.

What better indulgent delight to make in our cold house than my mum’s Fiery Chocolate Truffles?  Even better, they are festively sparkly too!

I was limbering up for a weekend of indulgence in Glasgow, including tequila tasting at Lupe Pintos Mexican deli in Glasgow, a gig and curry, so what better way than with chilli inspired petits fours. I plan to make these again with a dash of tequila. Mi dios están calientes – perfecto! Gracias mamá!

Fiery Chocolate Truffles

Not subtle, but I do love a big chilli hit and many chocolate and chilli concoctions don’t deliver and have left me disappointed with a view that the combination is a little over-rated.  I re-evaluate my thoughts in light of this recipe.  Cuidadoso – adjust the amount of chilli powder to your palate.

Ingredients

200ml double cream

200g dark chocolate (70%)

25g butter

1tsp hot chilli powder (less, if your palate dictates)

dash of cognac or tequilia

edible glitter/cocoa powder to dust

Method

  • Bring cream to the boil and allow to cool slightly while melting the chocolate and butter in a Bain Marie.
  • Add the chilli powder to the melted chocolate and butter.
  • Pour the cream over the chocolate and butter mix and beat until well combined.  Add a splash of cognac – or tequilia – my choice for the next batch.
  • Chill before rolling into small truffles.  Coat in cocoa or alternative festive coating of your choice.  These will keep for about a week stored in the fridge.

Fiery chocolate truffles

Tequila tasting – Lupe Pintos Deli, Glasgow

I must admit, my knowledge of tequila is limited to only a few facts; it is produced from agave, a succulent plant native of Mexico, parts of southern USA, Central and South America that is pollinated exclusively by bats; tequila never contains a ‘worm’ (it is actually a moth larva), but mescal traditionally does come “con gusano” (with worm).

My experience of drinking tequila is even more limited and essentially stereotypical of many who, with youthful exuberance, overindulge in uncouth slammers with masses of salt and lime and vow never to touch the stuff again thereafter.

Digression warning – Recollections of Ecuador

The last time I drank it was over 10 years ago in a bar in Quito, Ecuador, in slammer form, shortly before our student contingent realised the bar we were frequenting was also a brothel.  Here, I must confess to a propensity for stumbling upon brothels in Ecuador.

After spending 2 months working in pristine cloud forest further west in the shadow of the Andes, myself and a friend had been joined by a jet-lagged Man Named Sous and we three decided to take a trip to to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, a rainforest reserve of note for it’s unique combination of biodiversity in the north east Oriente region, in Sucumbayos Province. It is close to the border of both Columbia and Peru.

After an 8 hour slow bus ride from Quito snaking lower down towards the tributaries of the Amazon along hair-raising hairpins of mountainous roads, accompanied by the usual blaring salsa music of choice on such bus journeys across the country (copious Tijuana horns mandatory), we arrived at Lago Agrio, the capital of the province in the evening, just after dark.

Lago Agrio (officially called Nueva Loja but this name is never used) had the definite feel of a frontier town, which it is, being only 20 miles from the Columbian border. It is a key area of oil exploitation in Ecuador, so its position close to the Columbian Border results in a mixed bag of occupants.  These consist of oil workers and locals as well as a smattering of Colombian guerrillas and drug smugglers.  Definately a place to keep your head down.

There’s not a lot to recommend for the tourist here, save for it being the gateway to one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. A polite description of the place would be unkempt.  Threatening would be more accurate. Quickly taking stock of the atmosphere of the place, us three very obvious Gringos opted to walk right up the middle of the main drag, very much being watched from the shadows of doorways of the many seedy looking bars, grills (agouti is a favourite grill meat here) – and brothels. We found a hotel and hid for the night before meeting with our tour guides in the morning.

A lorry took us and some American tourists along tracks cut throught the rainforest to make way for the oil pipelines originally installed by Texaco (beginning in the mid 1960’s) to access oil reserves in the area. We were shocked and distressed at the extent of the destruction of what was primary rainforest as we passed for hours through many miles of cleared forest, the lorry snaking along the route of the oil pipeline towards the entrance to Cuabeno National Park.

This year, Chevron (who now own Texaco’s interests in the region) were fined by Ecuadorian courts to the tune of $19 billion in compensation for environmental damage relating to its operations in the Lago Agrio area after a long battle with local indigenous people and settlers.  Serious pollution from oil spills and deforestation due to clearing for access roads, exploration, and production activities over 30 years resulted in one of the largest such fines handed out to date.

Leaving the oil fields and tracks behind, we were confronted with the dichotomy of immersion into pristine primary rainforest.  We then entered dug-out canoes and spent several hours travelling deep into the rainforest, spending a week at a makeshift camp next to one of the many lagunas along the Cuyabeno River.

Cloud forest had done little to prepare me for the breath-taking array of spectacular wildlife and plantlife on show, as we made our way along the river involuntarily shouting out observations to each other,  Anaconda! Macaws! Caimen! Dolphins! Morphos! (butterflies – huge irridescent blue dinner plates).

This culminated in a moment of utter euphoria for me when I saw my first hoatzin.  I had been obsessed with this enigmatic bird since I was a child.  I knew this gregarious species were found in the Oriente’s riverine forests, but never imagined I would see one, in fact, they were ubiquitous along the river.

The fascination for me stemmed from comparisons of the anatomical features the hoatzin superficially shares with one of the earliest known birds – Archaeopteryx (from whence the obsession stemmed – essentially a lizard with feathers – every child loves dinosaurs). Hoatzin chicks have two claws on each wing which help it grip branches and clamber. This is the feature that has led the species to be compared to Archaeopteryx, information I gleaned from David Attenborough’s marvellous ‘Life on Earth’ series which has fantastic footage of both adult and young hoatzins. I was smitten by this series and became a budding 8 year old zoologist. I received the book accompanying the series from my parents. It was a much treasured possession for many years, notably for hoatzin references.

The taxonomy/phylogeny of the species is subject to much contention, and the species looks evey bit as confusing as it’s DNA suggests. It is pheasant-sized with a crest, blue featherless face and red iris with a lumbering, ungainly flight and a call consisting of hisses, wheezes, grunts and groans. It is also exclusively vegetarian, having a digestive system more akin to a ruminant than a bird. An evolutionary quandary indeed.

The engimatic Hoatzin

The engimatic Hoatzin.  Copyright: 2000 Bill Rydell

At 100% humidity being right on the equator and accompanied by the dense vegetation of the forest canopy that almost obiterated light, the atmosphere within the forest was oppressive, especially at night when the calls of birds, mammals and insects reached an almost deafening crescendo.  We went on night walks around the camp which were fascinating with marsupials, monkeys, owls and weird and wonderful insects in close proximity – not to mention caimen along the laguna shore, tightly lined up like yachts in a marina, eyes shimmering in our torchlights. I though how easy it would be to get lost and was reminded of the astonishing account Benedict Allen gave in his book ‘Mad White Giant’ of his first solo expedition in the Brazilian Amazon when he did get lost. The trip almost killed him and he was in part saved by eating his dog.

After our spending a week taking in these wonders (I passed hours watching leaf cutter ants purposefully going about their caste chores), we and the rest of the group reluctantly headed back to Lago Agrio.  It was evening again and we did not relish a night there.  Against our better judgement, we took the risky night bus (strickly warned against in the guidebooks due to risk of kidnap near the Columbian border).  The view of our fellow American travellers was safety in numbers – we all get on the night bus.  My view was somewhat different when I envisaged the delight of guerillas as they realised they had the bounty of not one or two but ten foreign hostages.

In any event, bus internal lights dimmed, the salsa cranked up again to the max, we headed back to Quito.  A couple of hours later, the bus was stopped and a few bods in fatigues walked on with rifles, took everyone’s passports and papers and frog-marched us off the bus.  I was reasonably certain these were Ecuadorian officials, but had a stash of dollars to hand, just in case – bribes were not uncommon. We walked through a check point where an officer barked a few questions at us in Spanish and returned our passports.  We got back on the bus, no harm done, save for the shattered nerves of a few tourists.

We were very relieved to arrive in Quito, albeit in the middle of the night.  The same Americans we were travelling with (who suggested we take the night bus – we should have known better) took us to a hostel they knew would accept us in the middle the night.  ‘It’s great’ they said, ‘only $3 a night’.  Yes, but it quickly became apparent it also had a sideline as a brothel.  We left the hostel very early next morning.  It was called the Happy Volcano. ‘Nuff said….

Tequila – at last!

The tequila tasting session may have brought back vivid memories of Ecuador, but just as importantly, it made me re-evaluate my feelings about drinking tequila.  I must admit I was a little apprehensive when I saw 11 bottles of tequila lined up for the tasting.  This was especially since I don’t drink neat spirits.  In fact, I rarely drink them at all save for the occasional gin or Zubrowka (Bison Grass) vodka and tonic.

Tequila tasting with superb host and

Tequila tasting with superb host and botanas

I needn’t have been concerned, particularly given that the shots were served with a fine range of mexican botanas, all made in house, including cornbread, tortilla, meatballs, salsa (and chips, of course).  We also had fresh fruit with tajin – ground chilli and lime salt, a first for us and delicious and a perfect match for the tequila.

Tajin  - perfect with fruit and tequila

Tajin – perfect with fruit and tequila

This deli really is fantastic, not least because it is the only place in Scotland where you possibly hope to try an extensive range of tequilas. The owner of the deli took us through the history of tequila.  The Spanish Conquistadors began distilling from the agave plant, after being introduced to native fermented drinks such as pulque, reputedly when their brandy supplies ran out.  Tequila can only be called so if it produced in the state of Jalisco and we discussed it’s provenance relative to the more variable quality mescal.

Our chosen tequila - Herradura

Our chosen tequila – Herradura

I was surprised by the variability of available brands. Two categories exist; mixtos (no less than 51% agave) and 100% agave. it is bottled in one of five categories.  These include Blanco or Plata (white, unaged, usually bottled straight after distillation), Resposado (rested – aged for a minimum of 2 months, but less than 1 year in oak barrels and Anejo (aged – 1 to 3 years in barrels).

The 100% agave blancos have the most distinctively agave flavours, as one might expect, and it was these (smooth) examples I preferred – the aged Resposado and Anejo had an edge that was too reminicient of whisky for my liking.

My preference was for a smooth grassy, peppery flavour, hence I chose to buy the fine quality Herradura (£32). I would highly recommend these tastings at Lupe Pintos as you will get no better insight into tequila in Scotland.  You will also learn the secret to making the perfect margarita, which was way more potent, delicious and authentic than those from your average cocktail bar.

Devin Townsend – ABC, Sauchiehall Street

No weekend would be complete without a good gig.  The Man Named Sous and I were very regular gig goers when we lived in central Scotland and it is regrettable (although I’m sure our hearing has benefitted) that we do now have to be much more selective and can only attend a few a year, so they have to count.  However, a Devin Townsend gig should not be missed. If extreme music is your thing, at least.

Hevy Devy has been prolific since his days from Strapping Young Lad to the present and his output is ever changing but the quality remains undiminished.  Yes, it is essentially metal, with the influence of grindcore and industrial metal such as the supporting act, Fear Factory (great support – heaviness went down well with the crowd), but it also includes elements of Zappa and pop rock. He is in fact unique and in a genre all of his own.  His music is intelligent and crammed with ideas and is usually ornate, can be dense, over-the-top, complex, brutal and challenging as well as beautiful, uplifting and humourous. I would say, it’s also probably not everyone’s cup of tea – some of it isn’t that accessible and can be exhausting to listen to.  Importantly, he is a great live performer with an amazing voice and a great rapor with the audience.  I was delighted that the encore included ‘Deep Peace’ from arguably his Magnum Opus ‘Terria’.  A fitting end to a tremendous gig.

Devin Townsend - indefinable extreme music without boundaries

Devin Townsend – indefinable extreme music without boundaries

Random subject matter aside, normal service may be resumed for the next post. Probably.

Best wishes for the festive period.  I think it’s time to begin over-indulging….

The Bread Delusion

Yes, I know, yet another dire pun.  I can’t help myself. In justification, bread is God. I have always enjoyed making my own bread by hand, and have done so for a long time – always freestyle with approximations of ‘the bakers percentage’ (flour – 100%, everything else a proportion of this – water 60%, yeast 1% (dried), salt and fat 2% each).  I also have a bread maker that I use to make ‘the daily bread’ loaves, mainly as a time saver.  I simply do not have time to hand make each loaf we eat.

I am very grateful to own my breadmaker.  A Panasonic SD-255, the only reliable breadmaker I have ever owned. It produces pretty good consistent quality bread with minimal effort – and has a timer so you can wake up to the smell of fresh bread in the morning.  Making your own bread, by whatever means is always going to taste better than a mass-produced shop bought loaf (I don’t have the luxury of a local artisan baker here) and also has the bonus of being much cheaper – especially if you buy flour in bulk.  So, it must be at least 4 years since I bought a loaf of bread.

Last week, a component of my grossly overworked breadmaker broke, inevitable after years of hard labour.  Given the recent spate of electrical goods losses we have experienced, the last thing I wanted was to have to purchase a new breadmaker.  Fortunately the broken part was a mechanical component and following disassembly by the technically capable Man Named Sous, and a lot of web searching, we found a replacement for the broken part at a cost of just £10 – a massive +£100 saving on a new breadmaker.  Problem solved?  No, not really.

The repaired breadmaker

The repaired breadmaker

Having no breadmaker for about 10 days made me realise how complacent I had become about bread making over the last few years. Without realising it, I had lost a lot of my bread making Mojo over that time and I’d become, let’s face it, a bit slack. I felt ashamed.

It also magnified the fact that there are significant issues with bread making in our house.  It’s reasonably cold at the moment, with frosty clear mornings resulting from clear skies overnight. Our house patiently awaits renovation.  Current insulation levels are a joke and amount to a thin layer of polystyrene flapping about between the plasterboard and the stone walls.  Yes, the croft house walls are thick (60cm), but this is a windy place.

When the ‘breeze’ does pick up here to its usual autumn / winter 40 – 80 mph gales, the house has proven to be hellishly draughty.  Wind whistles through the electrical sockets and our rug at the top of the stairs levitates above the draughty floorboards (I am not exaggerating!).  Oh, and another small issue is that we have no central heating. Yet. We do have a stove, but controlling the draw by the wind can be difficult in a gale, exacerbating the problem of keeping the place warm (not least because the chimney cowl was blown off in a storm).

The open plan lounge/kitchen has usually fallen to about 14C by mid afternoon.  By mid evening, the stove stoked to the max, we are lucky if we can reach the toastiness of 18C. I don’t function well at these temperatures any more than the yeast in our bread does.

Of course, I had been taking the easy option, making dough for pizza, foccacia and pittas in the breadmaker. Chuck the ingredients in, 45 minutes later, voila, take out your dough, or leave to prove in the bread maker for a bit longer.  No worries, the little heated element within keeps the dough at an optimal temperature, yeast loves it.

In facing the quandary of how I would be able to get a temperature warm enough to make the yeast reactive as well as find the time to hand make a loaf, I made a fateful error and bought a sliced loaf from the supermarket.  That was a very bad idea for obvious reasons: the dry cardboard flavour and texture and too many additives. At least it shocked me into bread making mode.

After perusing some dough-related books and the web, I was ready to take on the challenge again – even in the cold. Time for kill or cure.

I opted to make a basic recipe using malted grain.  I lit the stove and looked at strategies to get the yeast to do its work.  This meant hovering the bowl and baking trays over the stove to encourage yeast action. It sort of worked, but took way longer than I anticipated – only really possible at the weekend for me.

Malted Grain Bread

Instead of my usual freestyling loaf, I needed a bit more input to get it right.  I read the instructions to produce a basic loaf outlined in the River Cottage Handbook No.3 – Bread.  I chose malted grain because I found our local independent Bayhead Shop selling it. The mix is usually mainly white flour mixed with a proportion of wholemeal flour, malt powder and malted grains.

Ingredients

1kg malted grain flour

10g dried yeast

20g fine salt

600ml warm water

1 tblsp melted butter

handful of rye flour for coating

Method

  • Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Sometimes I warm up the flour to make the yeast react more quickly. Add the butter then the warm water.
  • Adjust the amount of water or flour at the end to get a relatively sticky dough, turn it out onto the work surface.
  • Knead for 10 minutes, in your chosen style.  Whatever your kneading style, make sure the dough gets smooth and silky.
  • Shape it into a round and rub with oil.  Place in a bowl and cover with a plastic bag to ferment. It should about double in size.  This make take as little as 45 minutes in a cosy house, for me, it took 3 hours!
  • Tip out the dough onto a surface again and deflate using your fingertips.  Don’t batter it about too much when knocking it back.
  • You can leave it again to rise.  The handbook suggests up to another 4 times to improve texture and flavour.  That would have taken me until the next week, so I did this once.
  • Divide up the dough and shape as desired.  I made 2 big loaves, you could make several small, or rolls.
  • Coat the loaves with a little rye flour to improve the look and texture of the exterior.
  • At this point, turn up the oven high, I tried 250C.  Leave your shaped loaves to prove while the oven heats.
  • When the loaves have risen significantly (almost double), they are ready for the oven. Slash the tops about 1 cm deep, if desired.
  • Put an oven tray with boiling water from the kettle into the bottom of the oven just before you put in your loaves.  This enhances the crust texture and give a good rise in the oven.
  • After 10 minutes, turn the oven down – the temperature will depend on the colour at this stage.  If pale, turn down to 200C, if browning quickly, 170C.

I left my 2 big loaves in for 50 minutes.  Tap the bottom when you take them out – they should sound hollow.

All in all, I was pleased with the result. Although it was a bit epic, I aim to hand make one loaf a week from now on to keep my hand in.  And these loaves did taste better than those produced in the breadmaker, so worth the extra toil.

Welcome back, my real friend

Malted grain loaves – Welcome back, my real friends

Baileys and Malteser Cheesecake – no bake, of course!

When it comes to cheesecake, the question of whether to bake or not to bake, and which is better, will always divide.  I come down firmly in the no bake, no gelatine camp, although I do admit to enjoying a baked key lime pie.

Perhaps my decision is particularly pertinent this week when I have had a couple of baking disasters in quick succession.  Firstly, a gingerbread misadventure. I didn’t think this was possible, but have now proved myself wrong.  Need to lay off the treacle a bit next time. The second was much more calamitous.  Croissants.  A twelve hour commitment to Michel Roux for nil return.  I know where I went wrong and I will re-visit the subject when I get them right (and when I have the time to try again!).

At the behest of The Man Named Sous, due to the occasion of his birthday, I gave him carte blanche for a menu.  Baileys and Malteser Cheesecake was chosen as dessert, to our unanimous delight.  His favourite cheesecake, and one of the easiest desserts to make – no baking!

Cheesecake has the unfortunate reputation as being something quite ordinary and often synthetic – or maybe that is more from my memory of the shop bought frozen gelatine-set purple topped things that were around in the 1980’s.  Also, despite their long history (reputedly a form of cheesecake was popular in ancient Greece) and varied styles from a diverse array of countries, they still predominate on dessert menus of pubs and chain restaurants much more so than in fine dining establishments.  There is some indication however, that this is changing of late. I noticed vanilla cheesecake has been on the menu at Le Champignon Sauvage in Chelmsford, albeit served with less ordinary salted chicory-root mousse.

The Man Named Sous has been quite literally tied to his workshop bench for the last month, with long days immersed in the world of cello – both making a new cello and restoring an old cello in tandem.  No small undertaking, especially to tight deadlines.

So, it seemed appropriate that the soundtrack for cheesecake-making should be centred around this most divine of all instruments of the violin family (I know, violinists and violists will argue otherwise).  I was reminded of a fantastic concert we attended a few years ago in Selkirk, a friend (and cellist) having invited us to watch Steven Isserlis play with the community orchestra.  We had front row seats, only a few metres from Isserlis who gave a mesmerising performance of the famous Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1. Isserlis has unfortunately not recorded this concerto, however, we are fortunate to have a recording of the great Rostropovich playing the piece, written for him by Shostakovich and which he premiered for his friend in 1959.  So accomplished and engaging is Slava’s playing of this wonderful concerto, I am listening to it again now.

Of course, that was my memory of what Isserlis played, and I wanted to confirm this with The Man Named Sous.  On asking him what Isserlis played that night he replied “A Strad”.  Typical cello maker!  I suppose it could have been his other cello, a beautiful Montagnana (1740). The Man Named Sous was at that time (as with his current cello) basing his design on this great Italian instrument, so he was very slightly disappointed not to hear the Montagnana played that night.

Ah, there’s few such wonderful memories as music can produce, I digress, so back to the cheesecake.

Baileys and Malteser Cheesecake

I vary the base for cheesecakes. I quite like oaty biscuits instead of digestives and often include a smattering of Grape Nuts for crunch. The ratio of cheese to sugar means this cake isn’t too sweet, so add 20g more icing sugar, if more sweetness is desired.

Ingredients

120g butter, melted

300g digestive biscuits, crushed

600g cream cheese

100g icing sugar

300ml double cream, whipped

A small box of Maltesers – about 3/4 of the contents, crushed lightly

25ml Baileys Irish Cream

Cocoa powder, to dust

Method

  • Melt the butter in a pan together with the crushed digestives, mixing well until the biscuits have absorbed the butter.
  • Press the biscuit mixture into a springform tin.  I used a 23cm diameter tin, which gives a relatively thin biscuit base, which I was looking for. Allow this to chill in the fridge for an hour or so.
  • Beat the cream cheese lightly, add the icing sugar and Baileys.  Whip the cream, although not too stiffly and fold into the cheese with the crushed Maltesers.  Spread across the biscuit base and allow a few hours to set.
  • Dust with cocoa powder and serve. Eat any leftover Maltesers. Simple as that.

Bailey's and Malteser cheesecake

Wild Hebridean salmon with lemon nasturtium ‘caper’ butter sauce

It was a privilege and proud day indeed when The Man Named Sous caught his first wild salmon on a trip over the Sound of Harris to the Obbe Fishery, Leverburgh, Harris.  This fishery has a number of lochs and pools around the village.  The one which yielded the salmon ‘The Mill Pool’ sits in an incongruous setting, right next to the Co-op car park.  In fact, it is so close to the car park that you have to cast pretty carefully or risk snagging a vehicle, or worse still, the ear of an unwary shopper. Pretty surreal, considering almost all the fishing we do is in wilderness areas of North Uist!

Given the conservation status and fragility of wild salmon populations, good fishery management means at the Obbe, you can only keep one salmon and one sea trout in any outing, all others caught must be safely returned.  So it was that The Man Named Sous carefully landed his 4 lb 5 oz salmon next to inquisitive shoppers and to the whoops and cheers of his Swiss fishing companions.

There were whoops and cheers in our kitchen too when the catch of a salmon was revealed to me – plus a sea trout as well.  The question is how to you honour such a wonderful fish?  It has such delicate flesh and flavour that is unrecognisable from that of farmed Scottish salmon, which I admit I have very mixed feelings about.

No Scottish food blog would be complete without a salmon recipe, would it? Simple is best.  Although a bit decadent for a Monday night, last week we enjoyed the last pair of six fillets from the fish.  It was a moment to reflect on what an honour it was to enjoy eating genuinely wild Scottish salmon these days, especially in the Outer Hebrides where catching one is no mean feat. It was also important to relish the moment.  It will most likely be a very long time before the experience comes round again.

Wild Hebridean salmon with lemon nasturtium ‘caper’ butter sauce

Like many people, I always have a super-abundance of nasturtiums at the end of the summer.  The leaves are used to make pesto and are added to salads with the flowers.  Still, there is always more than enough to collect all the seed I need for the next year and lots left over.  The quandary of what to do with the seeds was solved when, while flicking through the River Cottage Handbook No 2: Preserves, I found a novel way to preserve the seeds, and just at the right time of year. It is remarkable how similar preserved nasturtiums taste to the flower buds of the genuine Capparis plant and all but lose their peppery power.

Nasturtium ‘capers’

Take the green seed pods from your nasturtium plants at the end of the growing season, while they are in optimal condition and before they start to yellow.  Some seeds have a reddish tinge and they are fine to use. The recipe in the Handbook calls for 100g, but this is a lot to aim for, so if you have less, cut ingredients proportionately rather than miss out.

Ingredients

15g salt

100g nasturtium seed pods

A few peppercorns

200ml white wine vinegar

A few seasonal herb sprigs (optional)

Method

  • Dissolve the salt in 300ml water to make a light brine and leave the seeds in the brine for 24 hours.
  • Drain and dry the seeds, pack into small sterilised jars with a few peppercorns and herb sprig of your choice. Leave 1cm at the top for the vinegar.
  • Cover the pods with the vinegar and seal with a vinegar-proof jar lid.
  • Store for a few weeks before using.

Cooking the salmon

Use farmed if wild is unobtainable – check the quality/credentials of your source for environmental and welfare standards. The fish should be cooked only for a short period and rested to retain a soft, translucent centre.

Ingredients

Salmon fillets  -1 per person

Salt and pepper

ground nut or other flavourless oil

Heat oven to 80C

Method

  • Heat a griddle pan until hot, but not smoking – you are aiming for crisp, seared but not burnt skin.
  • Put a small splash of oil in the pan, score the skin a few times and season with salt and pepper.
  • Add the fillets to the pan, skin side down.  Leave without interference for 3 to 4 minutes until the skin has crisped. Moving them around before this will most likely result in soggy/broken skin.
  • Carefully turn the fillets over and cook the flesh side for around 30 seconds then place the pan containing the fillets in the oven at 80oC.
  • The fillets will continue to cook through while resting in the pan for a maximum of 5 minutes.  This will give you time to make the sauce.

Nasturtium ‘caper’ lemon butter sauce

This sauce is very simple and is just about instinct and using your palate to balance the few ingredients, to your taste. The butter makes it rich and thick. The lemon adds zing and the nasturtium brings piquancy.  I would normally add a splash of Noilly Prat at the beginning and let the alcohol cook off, but I have ran out at the moment. In this case, I used approximately these amounts:

Ingredients

1 tblsp. nasturtium ‘capers’

juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon

30g unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes

generous handful of parsley

salt and pepper

Method

  • Add the lemon juice and zest to a small pan, heated to medium/hot.
  • Add the capers, as the contents start to fizz slightly, add the cubes of butter a few at a time, whisking them into the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper.
  • Throw in the parsley, stir gently and serve immediately over the fish.

I served the salmon with a warm salad of Anya potatoes with caramelised shallots, sherry vinegar and rapeseed oil.  The carrots were shredded and tossed in Dijon mustard, orange juice with a splash of cider vinegar, rapeseed oil and pepper.

Wild thing, I think I love you....

Wild thing, I think I love you….

Rosewater delectation: Pistachio and rosewater meringues with Turkish delight ice cream

I adore floral flavourings; elderflower, lavender, orange blossom and jasmine, but my favourite of all is rosewater. Rosewater has a long and illustrious culinary history. It is a stalwart of Middle Eastern and North African cooking, also featuring in Indian cuisine. When used with restraint, rosewater gives a characteristic flavour and alluring fragrance that takes you straight to the edge of the Med.

Rosewater is the leftover liquid or hydrosol remaining when rose petals and water are distilled together for the purpose of making rose oil, so it is a bi-product. It is also relatively cheap and easy to obtain from delis or wholefood shops and has a reasonably long shelf life, so it is always handy to keep in the store cupboard and a little goes a long way.

Bulgaria produces an estimated 85% of the world’s rose oil and hence is also a key producer of rosewater. I was lucky enough to visit this beautiful country a couple of years ago.  It was a conservation trip to look at how the Bulgarian government manages areas of high conservation value in national parks and other protected sites in Bulgaria, focussing on the Stara Planina in the Balkan Mountains, central Bulgaria, particularly the Central Balkan National Park. The beech, oak and hornbeam forests are stunning, as are the high alpine meadows.  These habitats hold impressive numbers of rare species of invertebrates, higher plants and fungi and I was fortunate to see a diverse range of each.

Coincidentally, driving south from the Balkan Mountains, we travelled through the Rose Valley. This valley is world famous for growing roses and for centuries has been the centre for rose oil production in Bulgaria. We stopped near the town of Kazanlak, centre of the rose oil industry and walked through the rose fields at the peak time for harvesting, early in June.

Bulgarian rosefields in full bloom

Bulgarian rosefields in full bloom

The intoxicating scent of the beautiful pink damask roses was everywhere. Honeybees covered the flowers, pollen baskets full, contributing to honey production, another industry that had formed a common sense symbiosis with rose oil production.

Rosewater is a versatile flavour and can be used in savoury and sweet dishes.  It is more aromatic and flavoursome uncooked, but still retains the essence of its aroma and character if cooked.

I have been including rosewater in numerous recipes recently, experimenting in order to get the flavour balance right.  Having some good quality Turkish delight in the house (rose flavour, of course),  I decided I wanted to make Turkish delight ice cream, one of my favourite flavours, but always such a rare find in all but the most comprehensively stocked gelaterias.

My expectation was that this would need careful addition of a little rosewater to the cream, as the Turkish delight was pretty pungent with rose flavour.  To balance this, and again having a look through Ottolenghi, I found the perfect accompaniment – pistachio meringues, a hint of rosewater included.

This is also a thrifty strategy since ice cream uses copious amounts of egg yolks and meringues egg whites, so the recipes marry economically too. The pairing of a cooked and uncooked rosewater sweet treat commenced.

Pistachio and rosewater meringues

This recipe is from Ottolenghi, his first book.  The Ottolenghi outlets in London are famous for their meringues, so after looking at the images, and anticipating capturing some of my favourite flavours within, there was no point in resisting…

The first thing the recipe states is that a good free-standing mixer is essential.  Following the demise of my 1960’s Kenwood Chef, I was without such a gadget.  I didn’t have much choice but to get on with it using my handheld mixer, which was pretty awkward, but worked.

The recipe suggests dolloping the meringue onto the plate of crushed pistachios and rolling it around.  This sounded like something you would need to be well practised at to master, and I didn’t even attempt it as I could only imagine how inelegant it might look.  I opted for the safer option of sprinkling / throwing the pistachios on / at the meringue after spooning them onto a baking sheet!

I cut the recipe ingredients by half.  I thought the quantities were excessive (10 egg whites) and by halving, I could neatly use almost all of the egg whites left over from making the ice cream. This made about 12 moderately large meringues.

Heat the oven to 200oC initially

Turn down to 110oC for meringues

Ingredients

300g caster sugar

150g egg whites (about 5 large eggs)

1 tsp rosewater

30g finely chopped pistachios

Method

  • Place the sugar on a baking sheet lined with parchment and heat in the oven for about 8 minutes until hot and dissolving at the edges.
  • When the sugar is almost ready, on high speed,  mix the egg whites until they start to froth, about 1 minute.
  • Pour the hot sugar slowly over the egg whites.  Once all the sugar is added, add the rosewater.
  • Whisk on high speed for 10 minutes or until the mix is cold.
  • The mix should be stiff and silky.  Taste to check flavour and add more rosewater, to taste.
  • Turn the oven down to 110oC and line a baking sheet with parchment paper, sticking it in place with a bit of meringue mix.
  • Dollop the meringue onto the paper.  Yotam recommends the size of an apple, mine were a bit smaller, about apricot size. They expand a lot during cooking so leave enough space between them.
  • Crush the pistachios using a food processor and sprinkle over the meringue.
  • Place in the oven for about 2 hours.

The meringues should be firm outside and a bit soft in the middle.  They will keep for a few days in an airtight container.

Pistachio and rosewater meringues

Pistachio and rosewater meringues

Turkish delight ice cream

After much deliberation, last Christmas we gave a present to selves of an ice cream maker.  The Cuisinart professional model we have has a built-in compressor, so is pretty straightforward to use and no need to freeze the bowl beforehand.  You can make this recipe without an ice cream maker, it just requires regular hand churning of the mix as it sets, which can be a time-consuming commitment.

Cuisinart ice cream maker

Cuisinart ice cream maker

The Man Named Sous would not mind me saying that he is pretty obsessed with ice cream. I must admit, I was fairly ambivalent to most and pretty selective about what flavours I consume and from where.  Home made ice cream is a revelation and extremely decadent. It should be accompanied by some sort of portion limiter and health warning as it contains shocking amounts of egg yolks, fat (in the form of cream) and sugar.  Oh well, everything in moderation, you only live once, and other similar excuses for indulging oneself.

For this recipe, I used a basic custard as I would for many other ice creams.  I favour the recipe and methods used in ‘The Perfect Scoop’ by David Lebovitz, so have adapted from that. Surprisingly, this marvellous book does not have a recipe for Turkish delight ice cream or my other all time favourite flavour pistachio (to be visited another time).

Makes about 1 litre.

Ingredients

250 ml whole milk

150g caster sugar

500 ml double cream (!)

pinch of salt

6 large egg yolks

1 tsp rosewater

natural red food dye (optional)

8 pieces of Turkish delight, cut into small chunks

A little icing sugar

Method

  • Warm milk, sugar and 250 ml of cream and salt in a pan and remove from heat once sugar has dissolved.
  • Pour the remaining 250 ml of cream into a large bowl and set a sieve over the top.
  • In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks.  Slowly pour the warm mixture onto the egg yolks then scrape back into the pan.
  • Stir constantly over a medium heat until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.
  • Pour the mix through the sieve onto the cream add the rosewater and a couple of drops of natural red food dye (if using) and leave to cool and refrigerate.
  • Once chilled, churn in an ice cream maker for about 45 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, chop up the Turkish delight and roll the small pieces in some icing sugar to coat them so they don’t clump as you add them to the ice cream. Fold the pieces into the ice cream when it is ready, just before you freeze it.

The meringues and ice cream worked well together and would probably have been enhanced by the addition of fruit.  Mango, plum, peaches or strawberries would work, either fresh or in a coulis.

Next aim is to make my own Turkish delight.

Turkish delight ice cream with pistachio and rosewater meringues

Turkish delight ice cream with pistachio and rosewater meringues