Christmas Ham, Leeks and Mustard Lasagne

In my household, we have two food-related traditions for Christmas. The first is that there has to be a ham, which I normally boil for a good 2 hours in cider and spices. I then slice it and we have it cold on bread with cheese and pickle throughout the holidays. Also, the choice par excellence for Christmas Eve is salmon. I buy a whole side from the fishmonger (about £25), slather it in honey, spices, mustard and citrus juice, then roast it until it’s just cooked and tender. Normally these are the two dishes which would accompany our holidays right until the end. However, not all things are eternal and even the ham is not going to last forever. What can you do, then, to make those leftovers go the extra mile?

Rather than throwing them away, I use them again in recipes. I would usually cook pasta and make a sauce with the leftover salmon and crème fraîche. The ham is very versatile and can be used in a wide variety of dishes, the lasagna suggested here being just one of them. You could also transform it into cannelloni, filled pasta shells, or ditch the pasta altogether and opt for a salad or a mousse. The amount of ham indicated below is purely an indication – use as much as you like. Also, make sure you wash the leeks after you sliced them as they tend to contain quite a lot of dirt and you don’t want to feel the grittiness under your teeth.

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Ingredients

  • 1L whole milk
  • 100g + 50g unsalted butter
  • 100g plain flour
  • 2 tsp mustard powder
  • 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • approximately 700g cooked gammon joint
  • 2 large leeks, halved and finely sliced
  • approximately dried 10 lasagna sheets
  • 300g extra mature cheddar, coarsely grated
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Start by making the bechamel sauce. In a large saucepan, gently melt 100g butter. Once that’s all melted, take the pan off the heat and add the flour. Use a wooden spoon to combine the mixture, which will look very messy but that is fine. Transfer the saucepan back onto a medium heat and cook the mixture for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Make sure the flour and butter mixture does not stick to the bottom of the saucepan.
  2. Meanwhile, warm the milk in another saucepan. Bring it to the boil, then turn off the heat. Slowly pour about a third of the warm milk into the egg and flour mixture, then mix with the wooden spoon to dissolve all of the flour. The mixture will thicken quickly since there is not much liquid. Slowly add another third of the milk and mix again to dissolve any lumps which might form. Finally, when the mixture is smooth again, pour in the remaining milk. If the mixture turns very lumpy, you can use a whisk to energetically mix it all together. Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly, for a good 5-10 minutes, until the mixture has thickened and easily covers the back of the wooden spoon.
  3. In the meantime, melt the 50g butter with a drizzle of olive oil in another saucepan and add the sliced and washed leeks. Cook over a medium heat for approximately 10 minutes, until the vegetables have cooked down and are translucent. Remove the pan from the heat.
  4. Finely dice the cooked gammon, then add them to the pan with the leeks. Dollop in the Dijon mustard and season generously with salt and pepper. Season the bechamel sauce too and whisk in the mustard powder. Pour the bechamel sauce in the pan with the ham and leeks, then mix to combine.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
  6. Start to assemble the lasagna by pouring a couple of ladlefuls of the bechamel mixture onto a deep baking tray (mine is 30x25cm). Spread the mixture to cover the bottom of the tray, then cover with the lasagna sheets, which you might have to trim to cover the whole surface. Now dollop about a third of the bechamel mixture onto the dried lasagna sheets, then sprinkle about a third of the grated cheese on top. Cover with more lasagna sheets, then repeat this process until you have run out of bechamel mixture and the top layer has been sprinkled with the cheese. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the lasagna is a lovely golden brown on top and the sauce is bubbling away. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a good 10-15 minutes before serving, then cut it into portions and enjoy!

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Lebkuchen – German Gingerbread Cookies

Sometimes I like to leaf through old magazines to find recipes I deemed too complicated or not suitable at the time. Also, up until a couple of years ago, I used to subscribe/buy quite a lot of cooking and baking magazines, which means now my shelves are literally stocked up with reading material. I found the recipe for these biscuits in the December 2012 issue of delicious. and I have made them twice already – although not as successfully the first time. For those of you who do not have much experience with German Christmas baking, the term Lebkuchen (of uncertain etymology) refers to a variety of soft or wafer-like biscuits containing nuts, honey and spices, and they are loosely related to gingerbread.

Most recently, Lebkuchen are made in heart shapes and heavily decorated with royal icing – these are the ones traditionally sold in Christmas markets/fairs all over Europe. When I was a kid, my dad used to buy a commercial version from Lidl (sold with a chocolate/white icing coating) and take it home for Christmas. As a kid with a very sweet tooth, you can imagine how happy I was to finish them all as soon as possible. This recipe might not be 100% authentic, but it makes really good and soft Lebkuchen. I made them for a German friend for Christmas and he definitely enjoyed them, so that’s good enough for me.

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Ingredients (for the cookies)

  • 90g skinned, roasted and ground hazelnuts
  • 65g blanched almonds
  • 300g plain flour
  • 3 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 175g dark soft brown sugar
  • 175ml clear honey (mine had subtle orange notes)
  • 50g unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 orange, zest only
  • 2 large eggs

Ingredients (for the icing)

  • 350g icing sugar
  • 2 tbsp white rum
  • 1 tsp lukewarm water

Method

  1. Put the nuts into a food processor with half the flour, then pulse to a fine powder. Add the remaining flour, cocoa powder, spices, salt, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda, then process briefly to mix.
  2. Put the sugar, honey, butter and orange zest into the bowl of a freestanding mixer fitted with the spatula attachment, then cream together until smooth. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Gradually add the nut and flour mixture in two additions, then mix on a low speed until just combined. The mixture will be wet but will hold its shape. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and transfer to the fridge to rest for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Line at least two baking trays with parchment and set aside.
  4. Take the biscuit dough out of the fridge. To shape the cookies, scoop out portions of the dough either using a measuring spoon (you are aiming for 1 1/2 tbsp) or judge them by eye and roll them between slightly wet hands. Shape each patty into a ball and place on the baking tray, but ensure they are 4-5cm apart because the biscuits will spread.
  5. Bake each batch on its own in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle of the biscuits comes out clean. Don’t overbake them or they will be tough and not pleasant to eat. While you are baking a batch, keep the other(s) in the fridge to rest. This will also ensure the biscuits don’t spread as much and that they keep a dome shape during baking. Transfer the biscuits to a wire rack to cool completely.
  6. To make the icing, combine the ingredients in a large bowl and mix to obtain a smooth but not too liquid icing. You can test the consistency by dipping a biscuit in it and letting the extra icing drop off it. If the biscuit keeps a nice white glaze on top, then it’s ready. If the mixture is too loose, it will slide off the biscuit. In that case, add a little bit more icing sugar. If the mixture is too solid, add more water 1 tsp at a time. If you don’t want to use rum, substitute for water instead.
  7. Ice all of the biscuits by dipping them into the icing dome surface first, then allowing the extra icing to drip off the cookie. Turn onto their bases and allow the icing to solidify. Enjoy!

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Cream and Praline Choux with Blueberry Swirl

Christmas is in what, 2 days? And although I do have some Christmas recipes to share, I decided to first give you this one, which I am particularly proud of. But before I proceed, please allow me to apologise for my long absence – I now realise it has been over a month. Work at university has kept me busy enough and, although I carried on baking and cooking as usual, I really didn’t have the strength or the time to sit down at my computer and type away. Also, what with a Christmas party to organise, cookies to bake for my partner (so that he could give them to his bosses at work) and more festive fun to be had, writing about baking after having baked the whole day didn’t appear as appealing as you could imagine.

I made these for my Christmas party last Friday and I took inspiration from this picture. I loved the lilac swirl on these perfect choux buns and I believe the blueberry complements the whole creation beautifully. Despite looking complicated, these are by no means difficult to pull off, provided you follow the instructions below. I decided to personalise the pastry cream filling with some ground hazelnuts and crushed amaretti biscuits, but you could as well leave it plain (or use liqueur). Also, I used gelatine to set the pastry cream and make it more suitable for piping. If you’re allergic, you could just cook your pastry cream for longer and make it thicker.

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Ingredients (for the choux buns)

  • 100g plain flour
  • 175ml water
  • 75g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 large eggs

Ingredients (for the craquelin)

  • 40g unsalted butter, softened
  • 50g soft light brown sugar
  • 50g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Ingredients (for the pastry cream)

  • 350ml whole milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 50g golden caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
  • 1 tsp cornflour/custard powder
  • 50g unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 gelatine sheets
  • 75g hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and ground to a fine paste
  • 5 crunchy amaretti biscuits, crushed

Ingredients (for the decoration)

  • 350ml double cream
  • 175g blueberry jam
  • 50g blueberries

Method

  1. Start by making the craquelin. This is a sugary paste which, once positioned onto the choux buns before baking, ensures an equal rise and a sugary crunchy crust. In the bowl of a freestanding mixer (or in a normal bowl), beat the softened butter until creamy, then add the other ingredients and combine until the mixture has the consistency of wet sand. Turn off the mixer (or stop beating with a wooden spoon) and use your hands to bring the mixture together to a cohesive ball.
  2. Lay a sheet of baking parchment onto your work surface, position the craquelin ball on it, then cover with another sheet of baking parchment and use a rolling pin to flatten the paste to the thickness of half a pound coin (approximately 3mm). Remove the top parchment, then use a 3cm round cookie cutter to stamp as many circles as you can onto the paste sheet and press enough to make sure the small ‘cookies’ are well indented. Cover again with the top parchment, transfer onto a flat baking sheet and put in the freezer to harden for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Next, make the pastry cream. Heat up the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla bean paste and soak the gelatine leaves in a bowl of cold water. In the meantime, combine the egg yolks, sugar and cornflour (or custard powder if you want to make it more yellow) in a big bowl and whisk together to combine until light and paler in colour. Don’t boil the milk, but take it to a gentle simmer, then slowly pour it into the egg mixture while whisking all the time to avoid scrambling the eggs. Pour the whole mixture back into the pan and place on a medium-to-low hob, stirring constantly, until thickened. You want the pastry cream to cover the back of the spoon and leave a trail when whisked/mixed in the saucepan. Don’t be tempted to increase the temperature or you will scramble the eggs.
  4. Once your custard is made, transfer to a bowl/shallow baking dish. Squeeze the gelatine leaves to remove the excess water, then whisk those in, followed by the room temperature butter, until fully dissolved. Press a sheet of clingfilm onto the top of the custard and leave to cool at room temperature before transferring to the fridge to cool completely.
  5. To make the choux pastry, heat the water and the butter in a saucepan. Again, just until simmering point and just long enough to melt the butter. Take the pan off the heat, then add the salt and the flour. Mix with a wooden spoon to combine and get rid of all of the lumps, then put back onto the heat. The mixture will look curdled and one big lumpy mess, but that is fine. Beat it with the spoon for about 2-3 minutes. This will ensure the pastry is dried out and absorbs the eggs later. To check your pastry is of the right consistency, try tilting your pan as if you were to ‘pour’ the pastry out. If the pastry sticks together in a big lump, then it’s ready. Transfer to a big bowl and spread it out with the spoon, then leave to cool.
  6. Heat the oven to 200C and line two small trays or one big one with parchment.
  7. You don’t want to add the eggs until the pastry has cooled to at least body temperature, otherwise they will scramble. Keep the eggs in a jug/bowl and lightly whisk/beat them together. Keep your wooden spoon at hand and start adding the beaten egg little by little (here’s why a small jug is handy), then beat the mixture together until fully combined. The pastry will look like it’s breaking into small lumps at first, but don’t give up and carry on. You will see the pastry gets slightly slacker with each egg addition. Keep on adding a little bit of the egg at a time and fully mixing that in before adding some more (you might not need to use it all) until the pastry becomes a shiny dough that just falls off the spoon when slightly shaken. Some French pastry chefs say to spoon some pastry and tilt the spoon towards the bowl: if the pastry/dough falls into the bowl and leaves a triangle-shaped trail onto the spoon, then it’s ready. Others say to check whether the spoon leaves a trail in the dough while mixing. I honestly use the triangle method. I also find it’s better to have the pastry slightly on the dry side, otherwise if it’s too wet the choux buns will flatten during baking.
  8. Transfer the choux pastry to a piping bag fitted with a plain nozzle, then pipe 3cm blobs onto the baking sheet(s). I managed to get exactly 13 on each small tray. Make sure you leave plenty of room in between the choux mounds as they will rise during baking. Remove the craquelin sheet from the freezer and gently peel off the small discs, then place one on top of each choux mound and gently press them in place. Bake the choux buns for a good 30 minutes and NEVER open the oven, otherwise you will deflate the buns. The choux buns need to be slightly dark in colour and should not have light or pale cracks/wrinkles on them.
  9. Remove the choux buns from the oven and leave them to cool slightly. I normally sacrifice one by cutting it in half and checking it is well baked inside – if it’s not, they go back in the oven for an extra 5-10 minutes. Leave to cool completely.
  10. Gently heat the blueberry jam in a small saucepan until melted, then press through a sieve to get rid of any bits/seeds. Allow the sieved jam to cool completely.
  11. Whip the double cream until soft peaks from. Don’t overwhip it or it will be very hard to pipe and it won’t look as nice. Mix half of the whipped cream with the pastry cream (which should have completely set), then add the ground hazelnuts and crushed amaretti biscuits. Transfer to a piping bag fitted with a big plain nozzle. Mix the remaining cream with the now cooled blueberry jam, which will tinge the cream a lovely lilac, then transfer to a piping bag fitted with a star nozzle.
  12. To assemble the cakes, take the choux buns and use a serrated knife to cut a 3cm round hole at the top, through the craquelin. Discard the tops you have removed. Pipe the pastry cream inside each choux bun, right until the top. Now take the lilac cream and pipe a nice swirl on top of each filled choux bun, then place a blueberry in the middle. Serve and enjoy!

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