Watermelon Cookies

Can you feel it? I definitely can. Summer is coming. Well, it’s definitely taking its time, especially here in the UK, but believe me when I say that at some point it shall be warm. Days are already getting longer and, most surprisingly, we have even had some sunny spells over the last few days. Also, on a more personal (and professional) note, I have recently started working as an interpreting tutor/professor at the same MA I completed 3 years ago at the University of Leeds. I now teach interpreting from and into Italian once a week and I will also be taking part in exams and marking the students’ performances. I have to say, it is a tiring job, but I’m really loving every minute of it! I also made it a personal resolution to bake something for the students each week and not, as you might think, because I want to buy their appreciation but, rather, because you should nourish your body AND your mind. Also, seeing as we only practice for 4 hours on one afternoon, sweet treats provide the necessary sugar boost and distraction to carry on without falling asleep.

Therefore, what better way to celebrate both these wonderful news than with a batch of watermelon cookies? Before you ask, no, they do not taste of watermelon. These are pretty standard vanilla shortbread cookies which are shaped to look like cute watermelon slices. The idea and the recipe come from this video on YouTube, which also details the steps to take in a more visual and interactive way. You will also see my cookies are not as beautifully shaped as the ones in the video even though I followed the recipe word by word. Not sure why that happened, I think maybe brushing the different layers of dough with egg whites before gluing them together would ensure they don’t peel off during baking. Alternatively, make sure your layers adhere well one to the other before you chill them. If you don’t feel comfortable working with food colouring, you can always replace it with natural dyes (beetroot for red and mint for green).

20140226_222232

Ingredients

  • 170g unsalted butter, softened
  • 170g caster sugar
  • 1 medium egg
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • red and green gel food colouring
  • 50g mini chocolate chips

Method

  1. In a large bowl or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer, cream the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and the extract and thoroughly combine them.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients, then slowly add them to the butter mixture and beat until fully incorporated. Remove 1 cup of the dough (I used an actual US cup measuring spoon), then set that aside.
  3. Use the red food colouring (sparingly, I shall add) to tinge the remaining dough, then shape it into a 15cm log. Wrap it in clingfilm, then put it in the fridge to firm up for a good hour.
  4. Now take the reserved dough and divide that in half. Wrap one half in clingfilm and put that in the fridge too. Use the green food colouring to dye the rest of the dough, then warp it and chill it.
  5. When it’s time to assemble the cookie log, take all of the coloured doughs out of the fridge. Roll the white and green ones to 15x16cm rectangles, then wrap them around the red log, starting with the white dough. Make sure to pinch and smooth the seals, then wrap it in clingfilm once more and put it in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
  6. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and line two baking trays with parchment.
  7. Remove the log from the fridge, then use a very sharp and clean knife to cut it into 1cm slices. Cut each slice into halves and there you have your watermelon slices! Press the chocolate chips pointy end downwards into the cookies, then bake each batch for 10 minutes. They will start to puff up towards the end of the baking time. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

20140226_204519

 

20140226_222227

 

20140227_105002

Advertisement

Haddock with Courgette and Spinach Gratin

I strongly feel we don’t eat enough fish. Actually, let me rephrase that. Every self-respecting foodie and environmentalist knows world fish stocks are plummeting due to unsustainable farming/fishing and excessive consumption. However, I agree with Delia Smith when she says the British don’t eat enough fish – despite living on an island – because they are scared of cooking it. I love fish. To me, a bowl of home-made fish soup can be the perfect ending to a stressful and manic day. A good fish baked in a salt crust is simply divine. However, my partner is more oriented towards meat and doesn’t like fish which tastes of, well, fish (duh!): this means we don’t eat as much sea products in my household as I would like to. I do compensate with sushi and sashimi whenever I can, but I have also came to the conclusion that if I manage to make the flavour of the fish very interesting and enrich it with other tones, then my partner will love it too.

This recipe started as a celeriac gratin on one of the BBC Good Food magazine but I changed it to courgettes as I couldn’t find it in my local supermarket and it definitely works. Choose a flaky white fish for this, for instance haddock or cod, as you will need a meaty fish to counteract the creaminess of the vegetables. The fish is poached rather than roasted, which keeps it really moist and succulent. A sprinkle of paprika on top will enhance the flavour of the dish and provide a colourful touch. In addition, despite the presence of cream, this dish is not as heavy as it might look like, so don’t feel guilty to indulge and have second helpings!

20140220_194553

Ingredients

  • 500-600g white flaky fish fillets, such as haddock or cod, cut into 4 portions
  • 300g fresh spinach
  • 2 courgettes, thickly sliced
  • 200ml double cream
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • butter (for greasing)
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Heat the oven to 200C and butter a large gratin dish.
  2. Tip the spinach in a colander and sit in the sink. Slowly pour a kettle of boiling water on the leaves and wilt them, then run under cold water to cool them down. Squeeze any excess water out of the leaves with your hands and set aside.
  3. Tip the courgette slices, spinach and cream in the gratin dish. Season and toss everything together. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
  4. Remove the vegetables from the oven, then lay the fish pieces on top of them. Sprinkle with the paprika and season with salt and pepper, then cover with the foil again and return to the oven for another 30 minutes.
  5. Remove from the oven and serve while hot.

20140220_194843

20140220_194607

Korvapuusti (Finnish Cinnamon Rolls)

It all started when I came across this list of traditional Finnish food one should try at least once in life. This reminded me of the Christmas of 2010, when I was lucky enough to spend it in Salo, Finland, as a guest to a local family. You wouldn’t expect Finnish food to be exciting at all, but I have to say that, apart from the occasional weird but tasty novelties (erm, reindeer), the food I tried both at home and in restaurants was excellent. They have a very long and established tradition of hearty, wholesome food and their cuisine is strongly influenced by fish (widely available) and by soups – they are a very cold country after all.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Finnish have something which resembles the traditional British cinnamon buns: korvapuusti. These are cinnamon and cardamom “slapped ears”, as the name says, and are in fact the same as the Swedish kanelbullar, except the latter don’t contain cardamom. The version below is also purely based on cinnamon, for no other reason really than the fact I don’t own a spice grinder and grinding the cardamom seeds by hand is a real chore. Call me lazy if you want, I do that all the time anyway. Please enjoy these warm and don’t worry if they lose their shape while they’re baking, as they will be delicious nevertheless!

20140216_182702

Ingredients

  • 500g strong bread flour
  • 250ml whole milk
  • 100g unsalted butter, softened
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 x 7g fast action yeast sachet
  • 50g unsalted butter, softened
  • 80g light brown sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp double cream

Method

  1. In a saucepan, melt the butter (100g) in the milk over low heat just until the butter disappears and the milk is warm. Don’t boil the milk! Once combined, remove from the heat and allow the mixture to come to room temperature.
  2. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the hook attachment, combine the flour, salt, yeast (place away from the yeast) and sugar. Once the milk mixture is at the right temperature, turn on the engine and slowly add it to the dry ingredients. Add 1 egg.
  3. Once all of the ingredients are combined, take the mixture out and knead for a good 5 minutes on a non-floured surface until smooth, soft and pliable. Put back in the bowl, cover tightly with clingfilm and leave to prove in a warm environment for 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
  4. Punch the dough down to its original size, then tip out onto a lightly floured work surface and roll out to a rectangle measuring approximately 30x50cm. In a small bowl, mix the sugar and cinnamon.
  5. Spread the butter (50g) onto the dough rectangle either using your fingers or with a brush, then sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon mixture on top. Keeping the longest edge facing you, start rolling the dough on itself towards you. Try to keep the roll as tight as possible.
  6. Once your roll is complete, take a very sharp knife and start cutting it diagonally, making one cut slightly tilted to the right and the following one slightly tilted to the left. This way, you will end up with triangles rather than circles of dough. The base of each triangle should be approximately 4cm.
  7. Line an oven tray with baking parchment, then place the triangles with their widest side downwards and the point upwards. You should be able to see the circles of dough and cinnamon on each side. Cover and prove for another hour or until doubled in size.
  8. Pre-heat your oven to 180C.
  9. In a small bowl, combine the remaining egg with 2 tbsp double cream, then lightly whisk. Use a pastry brush to brush the sides of each cinnamon pyramid, then bake for 20-25 minutes, until a good golden brown on top.
  10. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before eating.

20140216_182758

Pasta with Duck Ragu

Duck is a bird which doesn’t belong to the British culinary tradition as much as it is present in the Italian one, especially in the North. More expensive than a traditional chicken, its meat tends to be more gamey and rich in flavour and, unlike chicken, ideally lends itself to lengthy and stew-like dishes. In Italy, the origin of this ragu, as always, is very disputed. Some believe that in the sixteenth century duck was first used by Catherine de’ Medici who, thanks to her mixed Italian and French background, was more open to culinary innovations. The river Arno, in Tuscany, was home to plenty of birds which were not exploited in the kitchen before and her idea was to make ragu out of them. However, others believe the recipe actually originated in the Veneto region, where the so-called anatra muta (muscovy duck, Cairina muschata) had been long domesticated and a lighter version of the modern ragu was eaten with bigoli, a type of pasta which resembles spaghetti, only thicker and hollow inside.

It’s interesting to notice how the Venetian vernacular word for ‘duck’ is ‘arna’, which bears a strong similarity to the name of the Tuscan river. I wonder whether this might explain a couple of things. Nevertheless, duck in the UK is commercially available either in supermarkets or from your local butcher. For this recipe, I suggest going for breast rather than leg. Although the original recipe (from the BBC Good Food magazine) suggested to use leg, I find it too fatty, not meaty and not suitable for this sauce. Duck breast has the advantage of having a very stringy texture, which resembles that of pulled pork. I find it very satisfying to bite into a shredded piece of meat in a ragu, but be free to experiment with leg as well. In addition, as with all ragus, this is a slow cooked sauce. Ideally, you want to cook it for a minimum of 2 hours, although I slowly simmered for 4 hours and the meat was succulent, tender and juicy. You don’t have to do much in the meantime either, just stir it occasionally, which means you can get on with your domestic chores and still enjoy a wonderfully rich meat sauce with your pasta.

20140204_182442

Ingredients

  • 4 duck breasts
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp plain flour
  • 250ml full-bodied red wine
  • 2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
  • 250ml strong chicken stock
  • 3 rosemary sprigs, leaves picked and finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • 600g pasta (I used manfredine, but any tubular or long pasta would do)
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • Parmesan, to serve

Method

  1. Heat some olive oil in a large pan. Add the duck breasts and brown on both sides, then set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Add the onions to the pan and cook until softened, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then stir in the cinnamon and flour and cook for a further minute, stirring frequently so as not to let it catch on the bottom of the pan.
  3. Take the skins off the duck breasts and return them to the pan, then add the wine, chicken stock, tomatoes, herbs, sugar and some seasoning. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and leave to cook for 2 hours, stirring every now and then.
  4. Lift the duck breasts out of the pan and put them on a plate/chopping board. Using two forks, pull the meat apart, then return to the sauce. Add the milk and simmer, covered, for another good hour.
  5. Remove the lid and simmer, uncovered, for another 45 minutes, until the sauce has thickened nicely and is not watery anymore.
  6. Cook the pasta according to packet instructions, then drain and toss with some of the sauce and a cup of the reserved pasta cooking water. Sprinkle with some parsley and decorate the plate with either grated Parmesan or cheese shavings.

20140204_182501

 

20140204_182432

Paris Brest version Conticini

Philippe Conticini is an award-winning French master of patisserie. A creative genius, the New York times once wrote that “Every time you feel you’ve figured out what he’s thinking, he is way ahead of you.” In the 80s, he revolutionized patisserie by using salt and spices, but other inventions include the pastries in glasses (the so-called verrines) and the de-contextualization of desserts from horizontal to vertical (think millefeuilles, to give you a for instance). A constant innovator, he is always on the lookout to recreate traditional French dessert with a modern and own twist, such as this Paris Brest. This pastry dessert was created in 1981 to commemorate the Paris-Brest bicycle race. It comprises a wheel-shaped ring made of choux pastry which is usually filled with cream and praliné, a hazelnut paste.

Conticini’s revolutionary idea was to keep the choux and the praliné components of the dessert, but to turn a wheel into a chain of choux buns, which get extra crunch and texture from the addition of craquelin, a sugary and buttery paste added on top of the choux buns before they are baked to create an even layer of crunchy goodness. The craquelin, in addition to adding texture to the pastry, also ensures an even rise. This recipe was also featured in the finale of the French edition of the GBBO (Le meilleur patissier). I suppose you can buy good quality praliné either online or from specialist shops, but I decided to make my own. Alternatively, you can use any hazelnut paste/spread (Nutella, to name one), but remember those also contain cocoa powder and plenty of other fats – not that this ever scared me. Making your own praliné is extremely easy and only requires the help of a sturdy food processor. The sugar and the natural oils contained in the nuts will do the rest. Last but not least, if you understand French, you can have a look at the tutorial for this recipe here. Hope you enjoy it!

20140201_154536

HOW TO MAKE HOME-MADE PRALINÉ

20140201_105734

Ingredients

  • 125g hazelnuts
  • 125g almonds with the skin on
  • 165g caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 45g water

Method

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 165C. Spread the nuts on a baking tray and roast for 20 minutes. Roasting the nuts ensures a deeper flavour and allows to remove their papery skins.
  2. Remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly. Take the hazelnuts only and place them inside a towel, then wrap it around them and gently rub them together for a good 2 minutes. This will allow you to remove and detach their skins, which will be left in the towel. Alternatively, take the hazelnuts in your hands and rub them or do it one by one. Either way, discard the skins and put the now peeled hazelnuts together with the almonds.
  3. Pour the sugar, vanilla bean paste and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium heat until the mixture boils. Boil it until it reach 120C (use a sugar thermometer).
  4. Remove from the heat and add the nuts, then use a wooden spoon to mix them in. The sugar syrup will seize and crystallize – don’t worry, this is normal. Put the pan back on the heat over a very low heat and leave the sugar to melt again until it turns a dark amber colour.
  5. Remove from the heat and pour the caramel and nuts onto a baking tray lined with oiled baking parchment or a silicon mat. Leave to cool for 30 minutes.
  6. Transfer the mixture to a food processor equipped with the blade attachment, then process it until it first turns into a sugary powder and then, little by little, it starts to clump together. Keep on processing until you obtain a fairly smooth paste, then remove from the food processor and transfer to a bowl. If the mixture looks too brittle and powdery at first, keep on processing. The nuts will start to yield their natural oil which will turn the powder into a paste.

20140201_111326

HOW TO MAKE THE PARIS BREST VERSION CONTICINI

First of all, we start with the craquelin.

Ingredients

  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 50g light brown sugar
  • 50g plain flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Method

  1. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer (or even by hand in a normal bowl), mix the unsalted butter with the rest of the ingredients to obtain a smooth dough-like consistency, then remove from the bowl and place between two sheets of baking parchment.
  2. Using a rolling pin, roll it out to 3mm thick. Remove the top baking parchment sheet and use a 3-4cm round cutter to impress round shapes on top of the craquelin, then cover with the second sheet of baking parchment and put in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.

20140201_141806

Then, we move on to the crème mousseline au praliné

Ingredients

  • 250ml whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 150g unsalted butter, softened
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 10g plain flour
  • 10g corn flour
  • 2 medium egg yolks
  • 75g praliné

Method

  1. Sift the flour and the cornstarch together.
  2. In a bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks with the sugar, then add the flour mixture and mix that in too.
  3. In a saucepan, combine the milk and the vanilla bean paste, then bring the milk to the boil. While still mixing, trickle the milk into the egg yolk mixture, then combine and transfer back on to the heat.
  4. Mix with a balloon whisk for about one minute, by which point the mixture will have thickened nicely. Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to a shallow tray, then cover tightly with clingfilm and leave to cool completely.
  5. Once your custard has completely cooled, cream the butter with a whisk or in the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with the paddle attachment, then add the praliné and, tablespoon by tablespoon, the custard. Mix over medium speed until the mixture is combined and fluffy.
  6. Transfer to a piping bag with a plain round nozzle.

Last, but not least, let’s make the choux buns.

Ingredients

  • 125g water
  • 80g plain flour
  • 60g unsalted butter
  • 2g salt
  • 2g caster sugar
  • 125g whole eggs, lightly beaten (measure without the shells!)

Method

  1. In a saucepan, combine the water, salt, sugar and butter, then bring the mixture to the boil but ensure the butter has completely melted.
  2. Take the pan off the heat, then add the flour all at once. Use a wooden spoon to combine the mixture, which will look like a messy lump. That is normal. Put back over medium heat and dry the mixture by beating it with the wooden spoon until the mixture come well together into a big ball and it leaves a slight layer of dough at the bottom. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl of a freestanding mixer equipped with a paddle attachment.
  3. Leave the mixture to cool slightly, then start beating it on medium speed. Slowly start adding the eggs two tablespoons at the time and wait until the mixture is fully combined before adding the next lot. Once you have used all of the eggs, the mixture should be thoroughly combined and it should create a trail once you lift the beater. Also, if you were to draw a line in the middle, the mixture should keep the line and not close on itself very quickly.
  4. Transfer the mixture to a piping bag with a plain nozzle.
  5. Pre-heat your oven to 180C and line a big baking tray with parchment.
  6. Use the piping bag to pipe 4 blobs of choux pastry on the parchment where the 4 corners of a 20cm square should be. Turn the baking parchment 90 degrees and repeat the process, piping in the middle of the already piped blobs. Use the rest of the mixture to fill the buns if they look small, they should be approximately 4cm in diameter, all equal and touching.
  7. Remove the craquelin sheet from the freezer and detach the rounds you had pre-cut. Arrange on the piped choux buns, then transfer to the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

20140201_141813

To assemble and fill the Paris Brest

Use a serrated knife to cut the crown-shaped choux buns in halves, making sure not to damage the circular structure. Remove the top and set aside.

In a bowl, combine 100g praliné with 50g double cream. I also added 1 tbsp Nutella, but that was a personal choice more than anything else. Transfer this mixture to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle.

Now, pipe a good dollop of the crème mousseline inside each choux bun, then top with one eighth of the praliné and top with more crème mousseline. Cover the crown with the top, then dust in icing sugar and serve. Best eaten on the same day.

20140201_154443

 

20140201_154434

 

20140201_154748