Biscuits with Bartok 7 – Breton Prune Far

As an appropriate welcome to the French horn to accompany the string section this week, I introduce the Breton Prune Far.  This delicious custardy pudding cake, similar to a clafoutis but with a dense, smooth, flan-like texture is best eaten cold. The recipe is a very quick and easy way to indulge in a refined ‘cake’ incorporating this most delicious of dried fruit. In fact, the French horn is really just an excuse to post about the Far, which I actually made for the musicians several weeks ago – and it is now Mozart, with cake.  I really need to change the title….

I know there are many prune dissenters out there, but I will not have a bad word said about my number 1 dried fruit. I eat it as a snack while out fishing or hill walking, add it to my breakfast muesli, or have gently stewed prunes for breakfast or as a treat with home made vanilla ice cream. So many people still recoil in horror at the thought of eating prunes. So bad is this stigma that in California, one of the key areas of production, they are alternatively called dried plums, which of course they are, but this is used to dispel the nursery food associations.

The extent of the animosity and occasional revulsion directed at the poor maligned prune seems surprisingly unjustified. I too have been scarred by the affront to prunes – embedded in lumpy, thick-skinned luminescent school custard. However, it seems a travesty not to savour the prune, resplendent in the savoury richness of aromatic lamb tagines and delicious with slow cooked braised pork belly.  Not forgetting the delights of prunes in the darkest of dark chocolate cakes, the fruit first being soaked overnight in amaretto or rum, plump and ready to bring an extra special dimension and indulgence to the cake.

Musical interlude: Mastertapes – Wilko Johnson

I’m writing this while listening to the great Wilko Johnson on Radio 4.  The new series of Mastertapes starts with tales from this great Canvey Island guitar hero. Wilko is naturally witty, warm and straight-talking and is discussing the first Dr Feelgood album, 1974’s classic ‘Down by the Jetty’, as well as his terminal illness and current musical projects. It is highly entertaining, although slightly distracting!

This is a great concept for a music series where John Wilson talks to leading performers and songwriters about the album that made them or changed them. It is recorded live and comes in 2 parts, an A-side where the performer is quizzed by interviewer John Wilson then a second programme, the B-side where the audience get to ask questions.  I recommend catching up with it online if you miss out on this first episode.

Prune cakes 007

Breton Prune Far

It may be very simple to make, but it is delicious and has a sophisticated, grown-up flavour ‘far’ removed from the nursery or indeed nursing home image the prune conjures up for many and is a patisserie cake in Brittany and Normandy.

I found this particular recipe in Annie Bell’s Baking Bible.  It is the last one in the book. I changed the rum in the original recipe for amaretto. The Far was particularly good with a strong high quality espresso, in this case, a single origin Columbian Bucaramanga which is full flavoured and complex.

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Ingredients

50g unsalted butter, melted

125g golden caster sugar

2 medium eggs

500ml whole milk

1 tbsp. amaretto

1 tsp vanilla extract

125g plain flour

125g ready soaked prunes

Preheat fan oven to 180C

Method

  • Brush a 23cm square cake tin (4cm deep) with butter and dust with caster sugar.
  • Blitz all the ingredients except the prunes in a liquidiser.
  • Pour the batter into the tin and scatter the prunes evenly over the surface. Bake for 35-40 minutes until golden.
  • Let it cool – it will sink slightly. Dust with icing sugar and cut into squares.

Prune cakes 023Prune cakes 039

Amaretti biscuits – solace for the coffee geeks

I am always seeking the perfect biscuit to accompany coffee and amaretti always come out on top as the ultimate combination, whether your preference is cappuccino, espresso, flat white or americano. I have made several batches of these particular amaretti biscuits over the festive period. The recipe comes from the delightfully delicious Ottolenghi cookbook. It did not mention in the recipe that they evaporate if left unsupervised for even short lengths of time, but every time I turn my back they are gone!

This is a very simple and easy recipe that is a refreshing change from the traditional amaretti.  These have a perfect zesty twist, are crunchy on the outside and slightly gooey in the middle.  I replaced the sour cherries cited in the recipe with dried cranberries.  This is only coincidentally seasonal since I had no sour cherries.

Cranberry Amaretti

Ingredients

180g ground almonds

120g caster sugar

grated zest of a lemon

3 drops of natural almond extract

pinch of salt

60g dried cranberries, roughly chopped

2 free range egg whites

2 tsp honey

icing sugar for rolling

Preheat oven to 170C

Makes about 20 amaretti

KitchenAid - a delight after the absence of a mixer following the demise of my grandmother's1960's Kenwood Chef that I inherited.

KitchenAid – a delight after the absence of a mixer following the demise of my grandmother’s 1960’s Kenwood Chef.

Method

  • Put the almonds, sugar, lemon zest, almond extract and salt in a bowl and mix.
  • Beat the egg whites and honey to what Yotam calls soft meringue consistency.  I beat them until moderately stiff as they fold in and hold more air with a slightly firm consistency. Beating the egg whites can be done by hand or using a food mixer, which I used. (my new KitchenAid – Christmas present to self after the recent demise of my Kenwood Chef).
  • Fold the egg mix gently into the dry ingredients to form a soft paste.
  • Take a small amount of mix and roll in your hand and then in some icing sugar before placing on silicone/parchment on a baking sheet.  I rolled these to the size a bit smaller than a walnut, otherwise they are too big to cook sufficiently inside.
  • Bake for 12 minutes, let them cool and indulge.

Cranberry amaretti

Cranberry amaretti

The (temporary) demise of fine coffee 

Something that strikes fear in the heart of any coffee geek is the loss of the beloved daily dose of quality espresso and cappuccino.  We are both geeks that find it impossible to live without at least a few quality shots per day.  Someone recently asked me if I had to live without red wine or coffee, which would it be.  I would ditch the wine without question, as would The Man Named Sous.  So, you can probably tell, our appreciation of coffee is serious.

We have fantastic, so-called ‘Prosumer’ machine, an Izzo Alex Duetto II, Italian engineered, a dual boiler machine with tight temperature and pressure control to provide consistently excellent shots. It also has stunning Italian styling, as one would expect.  Hold on, I need to go back a phrase or two. Italian engineering.  This is essentially where the problem lies.

I do not want to suggest that sometimes such products can be style over substance – this is certainly not the case for our much-loved coffee machine, but the experiences we have had with this machine are a stark reminder of the ‘temperamental’ nature of Italian engineered goods, in our experience.  I am thinking principally of a beautiful Ducati 851 sports motorbike owned by The Man Named Sous.

The Ducati looked and sounded wonderful – bright red eye-candy, an elegant and slick single-seater, compared with my equivalently pointy (but reliable and faster) Japanese brute (a Kawasaki ZXR 750). The problem was, the electrics on the Ducati never worked for more than one run. Lights and dials failed regularly, and with no reserve tank (very practical) and no odometer, each journey distance had to be calculated out to make sure there was enough fuel to get home. The electrical issues with our Alex Duetto II make it only slightly more reliable than the Ducati 851, although at least you won’t have to push it home.

Alex Duetto II Review

Alex Duetto II, the Ducati 851 of coffee makers?

Our Alex Duetto II, the Ducati 851 of coffee makers?

The machine is well crafted and made of heavy grade mirror finish stainless steel, inside and out. It is manually operated with a lever, which is a bit more interactive than a push button electronic set up.  It also allows simultaneous use of the steam wand while pouring a shot, thanks to the double boiler, a feature that very few home machines have.  The steam wand produces a powerful jet of steam so milk frothing takes a bit of practice to get it under control and to produce the desired microfoam. The machine has a water reservoir or can be plumbed in.

However, despite its good looks and flawless coffee production performance, alas, we have had a few issues with the electronics of our Alex Duetto.  A failed PID unit (this key component does all the temperature/pressure control) after about 18 months, fortunately within guarantee this was replaced by Bella Barista, the company who we bought the machine from.  At Christmas 2011, the temperature probe failed, so we had no coffee until the part was ordered after the holiday.  On Christmas morning just past, a similar fault has occurred, which we suspect also to be a result of the probe failing, so again, we are in an espresso desert until there is time to resolve the issue.

Diagnostics for this machine would not be possible without the engineering background of The Man Named Sous who has capably and confidently found each fault, removed the faulty part and discussed technical solutions with Bella Barista, who have offered a great service throughout.  We are very fortunate to have this skill in the house because sending the machine back for repair would be very costly – it weighs a mammoth 35kg.  I’m not sure how the average punter copes with maintaining this machine if living a remote area. The machine was also a serious investment and the current Alex Duetto IV model costs about £1900 – and that’s before investing in an equivalent quality grinder.

It took several months of committed research by The Man Named Sous as he indulged in his passion for techno-geekery, weighing up the pros and cons of just about every available machine on the market before settling for the Izzo. There is no doubt in our minds that we chose the best machine on the market for home use.  Despite these niggling issues, owning the machine is a delight, and judging by other reviews, I think we have been a bit unlucky and very few issues have been cited.

Although it makes producing a good shot as easy as it could be at home, it took about a year to really get to grips with producing A1 quality espressos and cappuccinos, taking into account grind adjustments and the differences in different coffee varieties and blends, moisture content of batches of beans, etc. We have had very helpful tips from the staff at Artisan Roast, Bella Barista and have found really invaluable online demonstrations to help us get it right.

We currently buy freshly roasted beans sent mail order, 1-2 days post-roasting.  We usually opt for single source but also like to try blends.  The plan is to start roasting our own green beans and experimenting with our own blends later this year, but we need a shed to accommodate a roaster – not something you want to do in the house, but can’t wait to start experimenting with roasting.

Amaretti and cappucino - when the Alex Duetto was opertaing smoothly.

Amaretti and cappuccino – when the Alex Duetto was operating smoothly.