Russian Salad Cups

In Russia, they prepare a wonderful starter called ‘Olivier salad’ (Салат Оливье), which comprises many ingredients, but is usually made up of diced boiled eggs, carrots, potatoes, chicken/ham, olives and dressed with mayonnaise. In Italy, this is obviously known as a ‘Russian salad’ (insalata russa), although it does appear that the original recipe might in fact have been French. Without going into too much controversy here (especially now, when the geopolitical situation in Europe and the ties with Russia are not exactly the friendliest of all times), let me just tell you that a good Oliver salad is a dish from heaven. Although typically served as a starter, I could eat easily this by the tablespoon as a main as well. I remember, when I used to live in Kaliningrad, eating tonnes of it. Good times.

Anyway, reminiscence over, I also wanted to tell you I got a new book while I was in Italy. It’s called Piccola pasticceria salata (Small savoury pastries) by Luca Montersino, a world-renowned pastry chef who is extremely famous in my home country for his innovative take on sweet (and savoury) dishes.  The book is a real compendium of flavours and experiments, which I always admire in the kitchen. One of his ideas was to give a new spin to this classical dish by making small bite-sized portions and topping them with a chicken and prawn nugget. Even though I have amended the original recipe to suit my taste and equipment, these are simply divine. A must try.

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Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 100g carrots (1 small carrot)
  • 100g potatoes (1/2 medium potato)
  • 60g frozen peas
  • 50g tinned tuna (1/2 tin)
  • 30g gherkins (approx. 6 small ones)
  • 80g mayonnaise
  • 1-2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Ingredients (for the nuggets)

  • 150g cooked prawns, deveined and tail removed
  • 80g chicken breast
  • 80g breadcrumbs
  • 30g egg white (more or less the egg white of a large egg)
  • salt and pepper

Ingredients

  • 250g shortcrust pastry
  • 80g mayonnaise, to assemble

Method

  1. First of all, you need to make your shortcrust cups. I used this 24-hole morsel set, which gives me 2.5cm pastry cups. Broadly speaking, you need to blind bake your cups and let them cool completely before you fill them, so please ensure the base is crispy. Lay each tin hole with a disc of pastry slightly larger than the hole, in order to ensure the pastry covers all the way to the edge of the tin. Line with baking parchment or foil, fill with baking beans, then bake in a 180C oven for about 15 minutes. Remove the foil and beans, then bake for another 7-10 minutes until crispy. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.
  2. To make the filling, peel the carrot and potato, then dice them very finely. You are free to adapt the size of the diced vegetable to the size of your cups. With mine being very small, I wanted them to be very finely chopped so as to be sure they would fit inside the pastry cups. Add the chopped carrot and potato to a pan of boiling water, then blanch for about 3-4 minutes, until the vegetables are just starting to cook. Add the peas, cook for a further 2 minutes, then drain and refresh under cold water (or, even better, add to a bowl with iced water to stop the cooking). Drain and set aside.
  3. Finely dice the gherkins and the tuna as well, then add to a bowl together with the boiled vegetables, the mayonnaise, the Worcestershire sauce and some seasoning. Mix to combine, then set aside.
  4. To make the nuggets, add all of the ingredients to a food processor and pulse until the mixture holds together and is thoroughly minced. Shape the mixture into small balls/nuggets (mine were more or less the size of a hazelnut), then fry in very hot oil until golden brown and cooked through. Drain on kitchen paper, then get ready to assemble.
  5. To assemble the tartlets, fill the cups with the Olivier salad until the top. Do not overfill them or you won’t be able to position the nugget on top. In a bowl, mix the reserved mayonnaise with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, then transfer to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle. Pipe a small ring of mayonnaise on the top of each tartlet, then position a nugget on top. Best served at room temperature.

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Plum Cupcakes with Basil Frosting

Just when you thought this blog was dead, here I come again. Apologies for the long silence, some major (positive) changes are happening in my life and I needed some time to adjust. Also, the week or so after you have come back from holiday is always a bit traumatic. Thing is, we tend to get so comfortable and accustomed to being on holiday that the return to a dull and grey (weather reference here) reality is very hard to deal with.

This is a weird and innovative recipe I decided to pretty much make as I went. It has had mixed reviews, but I decided to post it anyway because I believe it is a very important part of my discovery and development as a baker. Also, I thought the frosting was delicious! The little story behind it is that, long before I went on holiday, I bought one of those small basil plants you find in supermarkets. Thanks to the wonderful and sunny weather we had back in July, the plant grew so much I had to find a bigger vase to keep it in. I also made quite a lot of pesto, but the leaves kept on popping up. Unfortunately, upon my return after my holidays, the plant had lost some of its oomph and had started to slowly wither. Blame the lack of sunshine (basil plants need a lot to survive) or the fact the plant was destined to die eventually (my partner’s take), but it was time for me to part from my vegetable friend.

So what best way than to use the leaves in a frosting? This is not your conventional butter cream made of butter and icing sugar or of a meringue to which you add some butter. Rather, this is like a custard which then gets beaten over very high speed, incorporating butter as you go in order to give it structure. I strongly adapted the original recipe because it asked for 430g (eek!) of butter, which I thought was excessive. I don’t want to get a stroke, thank you very much. The cupcake are made following one of the Hummingbird Bakery’s recipe, except I amended some of the quantities and added some very ripe and juicy British plums.

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Ingredients (for the cupcakes)

  • 70g unsalted butter, softened
  • 210g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 210ml whole milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 5 small plums (about 150-200g), chopped

Ingredients (for the icing)

  • 355ml whole milk
  • 75ml double cream
  • about 100g fresh basil leaves
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 40g plain flour
  • 150g unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • green food colouring, optional

Method

  1. To make the butter cream, start the night before. Pour the milk and double cream into a saucepan, then heat over medium heat until simmer point. Wash the basil leaves, then plunge them into the hot liquid. Remove from the heat and leave to cool to room temperature. Transfer the liquid with the basil leaves into a heatproof bowl and leave to rest for at least a couple of hours, but better overnight, in the fridge. Needless to say, the longer the steeping goes on, the stronger the flavour.
  2. The day you are making the cupcakes, line a 12-hole muffin tin with cases, then pre-heat the oven to 170C.
  3. To make the cupcakes, mix the butter, flour, salt, baking powder and sugar in the bowl of a freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment. You are looking for a crumb-like consistency.
  4. In a jug, mix together the milk, vanilla extract and eggs. With the mixer on low speed, gradually pour half of the liquid ingredients into the dry ones, then mix until thoroughly combined. Increase the speed to medium to get rid of any lumps, then turn it back down to low again and add the rest of the liquid ingredients. Scrape the bottom of the bowl with a spatula, then increase the speed once more to combine it all.
  5. Add the plum pieces by hand, then divide the mixture among the 12 cupcake cases. Bake for about 25-30 minutes and check with a skewer whether the small cakes are cooked in the middle. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack.
  6. To finish the butter cream, whisk the flour and sugar together in a saucepan. Strain the content of the bowl with the basil leaves into the saucepan, ensuring to squeeze as many juices from the basil leaves as you can. Cook over medium heat until thickened, which will take about 10 minutes.
  7. Now, you can either decant the ‘custard’ to a shallow container and let it cool or you can pour it into the bowl of a freestanding mixer and beat it over medium speed with the paddle attachment until the bowl is cool to the touch.
  8. Add the green food colouring, then slowly add the butter, little by little and mixing on medium speed to ensure it all gets incorporated. If you see your butter cream is still very liquid, transfer the bowl to the fridge for about 30 minutes (or to the freezer for slightly less), then continue beating and adding butter. You need to whip the butter cream into shape, so to speak, so when you see the consistency is good enough, give it a last go on high speed, then transfer it to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
  9. To decorate your cupcakes, pipe a good sized swirl on each one. This recipe makes more butter cream than you will need, so you can eat the rest as it is! Enjoy!

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