30 November 2008

this time of the year - part three

Alright, this year's annual cookie craze is over.

At least almost, that is. So far, we didn't really have the mood to glaze the two kinds of cookies that still need glazing, meaning that technically we aren't finished yet.

But, all things considered, it was a great and productive first Advent weekend.

Together with our friends, we made like a hundred batches of cookies, at least that's what it felt like.

We went into town for a stroll over the local christmas market, and kindly it was even snowing, making the excursion a whole lot nicer than it usually would have been.

We watched the Muppets Christmas Carol, and I experimented with duck in red wine marinade, which luckily the wife considered to be a success.
I attempted to make 'muffoccacias', which I found on the internet but sadly cannot remember where. Those on the other hand still require a lot of tweaking before they will become regulars in our household.

Oh, and I ripped out that vine that had been choking our back hedge the whole summer long and turned it into our Advent wreath, as you can see above. I really like the idea of having those annoying weeds serving a decorative purpose now. Yay, go me!

But, not all is peachy here.

The Pfefferkuchen somehow ended up less then perfect. Usually, they taste hardly bearable when they come fresh out of the oven, and four weeks later, they are lovely, harmonious, spicy treats. This year, it seems, of all the battling ingredients there has been a winner, and unfortunately it is the salt of hartshorn. The first bite tastes fine, but then there is this lingering, soapy chemical aftertaste that really ruins the whole thing for me. I have no idea why, but I am afraid I'll only be able to use them as decoration, threaded on a golden wire.

Also, one batch of cookies died in the oven. For no apparent reason, they melted into pathetically flat puddles instead of turning into neat little knobs of jelly filled cookie crispness. The mess tasted lovely, but apart from that it was completely unusable. The only explanation I can think of is that I must have taken either too much butter or too much lard, or nor enough flour, but I was reading all of it off the recipe, so what the hell...?!

I'll make another batch this week, just to see if it turns out different.

Saving my sanity, (apart from my wife, that is, naturally) was the Stollen. They turned out just as lovely as they promised to, fragrant and moist and succulent.

Also, as extensive testing has shown, I am onto some really good recipe for Feuerzangenbowle in single servings. So far, I am still working on the actual burning part, not having been able to make much more than mulled wine 'flambé'. But that already has been much, much better than anything that I have seen served on christmas markets all around. Or served anywhere so far, that is. Really, really good. Expect to see the recipe here as soon as I have finished testing.

Which reminds me - I have a few experiments to set aflame.^^

23 November 2008

the swiss reason

I like cheese. Lots of it.

If I get some cheese, some bread, and maybe a bit of red wine and a small salad, I have my perfect meal.

That is, perfect as long as it is summer.

During the cold (or rather wet and windy) time of the year, I need something heartier. So it is molten cheese in any variety that I can get my grubby hands on.

When my mother-in-law first suggested to make her 'Swiss Ragout', I was intstantly excited. Meat, mushrooms and cheese, how good was that? It was great, and has since then become a household staple in my own kitchen.

Admittedly, I have yet to find out what is so 'Swiss' about the recipe that it deserves the name, apart from the fact that someone has added cheese. But, on the other hand, that already is a good enough reason for almost anything in my book.

You can't have such a thing as too much cheese, can you?

Ragout Suisse
(serves four)

800g to 1 kg of porc filet
500g (button) mushrooms
500ml cream
1 large bundle of chives
1 small glass brandy (Cognac or similar)
salt & pepper
at least 300g cheese (Fontina or similar)

If necesary, pare the meat, and cut into slices no more than half a centimeter thick.

Clean the mushrooms, also cut into slices. Chop the chives.
Cutting chives with scissors helps saving time and also makes less of a mess, at least for me.

Grate the cheese, or if it is too soft, cut into slices or cubes as small as you can comfortably handle.
You could also take a more neutral cheese like Gouda, but we usually prefer Fontina or Gruyere, as the cheese adds a lovely note the the whole dish that can comfortably be a little more pronounced. And of course, there can never be such a thing as too much cheese...

In a heavy, high-rimmed pan, heat some clarified butter and fry the meat at highest temperature until it catched colour; the meat does not yet have to be completely done.

Deglaze with the brandy, then set the meat aside.
If you are cooking with guests, this is the perfect opportunity for some show-offish fireworks. Or to set yourself and the kitchen ablaze. Please consider carefully.

In the same pan, add the mushrooms and maybe another bit of brandy. Stir occasonally until the mushrooms initial moisture has mostly evaporated and the first slices start getting golden.

Add the chives and the cream, heat until the sauce starts bubbling. Maybe thicken the sauce a little with some flour mixed in a little bit of cold water.

Return the meat to the sauce and reheat. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Pout the meat and the sauce into a wide, oven-proof dish and evenly cover with the cheese.
Of course, if you have an oven-proof pan, you can just keep everything in there.

Put in the oven underneath the pre-heated grill until the cheese is golden and bubbly.
Depending on the oven, this might take a moment, so I try not to overcook the meat in the first place as it will have ample time to get done in here.

Enjoy with bread, or along some pasta or rice, with some fresh white wine.

19 November 2008

waltzing pineapples

Yesterday, we were eating out, as it was the birthday of a dear adopted aunt who currently stays with us. We ended up going to our usual Italian haunt, as we didn't feel too adventurous. Dinner was lovely, both the food as well as the company, but what really made my day was dessert:

Fresh pineapple, caramelized and doused with sambuca, a strong anise-flavoured liquor, together with lemon-rosemary sorbet.

I never really cared for the pineapple/anise or rather pineapple/licorice combination, and had always thought it a little too funky and a little to 'must-try-something-new' for my tastes to really consider it.

But it was lovely. Really, really lovely. Not merely interesting, but perfectly great as both flavours really waltzed together, making each one more complex and less dominant at the same time, creating something new and lovely.

Must. Make. That. Myself.

Now all I lack is an occasion.

17 November 2008

a lot more bling

Surely you all know the feeling. Some evenings, you just need some luxury.

Oddly enough, as common as that sentiment is, each person seems to have a different definition of what 'luxury' actually entails. For some it might be taking the time they do not really have, for others it might be spending money on things they do not really need. If I were to generalize, I'd say luxury is when we indulge in something that makes us feel good, despite better knowledge.

Which brings me to Sunday night's dinner - something I make for us when I think we have deserved some treat, but do not want to spend hours in the kitchen.

I love this dish, but my relationship towards it is somewhat conflicted.

It is relatively expensive, at least for my tastes, so that is a minus. Beef filet, Parma ham, liver pate - just the finest. And before you cringe - yes, all this in the same dish, and no, it's not a waste, it definitely is a treat. I hardly believed it myself the first time.

It is almost primitive in preparation, which is good because I like simple recipes, yet at the same time makes me feel like a snob for making no better use of the ingredients. Which in turn makes me feel like a snob for wanting a more challenging preparation instead of being happy that cooking in this case has more of an assembly job. I never claimed to be free of contradictions, did I?

And I am not even sure it constitutes a proper dish - there are no sides I could think of to go with it, no starters or sweets - it is a very happy, posh stand-alone.
The more I come to think of it, it seems like the ultimate snack. Cousin to a slice of pizza, or a nice döner pide - just with a fine red instead of coke and a lot more bling.

Filet Millefeuille
(or puff-pastry beef, which has nowhere near the ring of it)
(serves two, generously, though that might still be not enough)

400g beef filet
100g Parma ham
100g liver pate
4 sheets frozen puff pastry

Clean the filet, if necessary, and cut into two portion-sized medallions. In a pan, heat a small knob of butter and sear the filets at a high temperature, until all sides have taken colour.
It is not necessary to actually fry the meat to the point you prefer - just given a hot trip through the fire, and they'll be fine.

Add freshly ground pepper to your liking and set aside.

Thaw the pastry, stack two each and roll out to form a rough square a little more than 20 by 20 centimeters.
Of course you could make your own, and it probably would be better. But on the other hand, then it would lose a lot of convenience, wouldn't it?

Onto each of the squares, put a layer of parma ham, making sure that the individual slices overlap.
I am not too sure here about the amount of ham I mentioned above, as it depends mostly on the thickness of the individual slices. I usually make sure I have enough to cover about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, then I am sure I'll have enough. Oh, and Serrano ham will do just as nicely.

Cover the ham with a generous layer of liver pate.
This is where I usually get stingy - so far I have found no reason why to stick with anything more espensive than a good, smooth German 'Leberwurst' - I am pretty sure any decent liver spread will do quite fine actually.

Wrap the medallions with the ham. Wrap the meat in the puff pastry, positioning the bundles in a way that the seams all face down.
As much of this dishes appeal comes from having a little bit of meat with both liver pate and ham on each fork, I think it is important to make sure they are well covered all around, not only folded in. Also, as the only salt comes from the ham, I tend to prefer an extra slice if in doubt.
For added colour, you can glaze the pastry with the remaining butter from the pan you fried the filets in.

Bake in the oven at about 180°C, until the pastry turns golden (about 15 to 20 minutes).
As soon as the pastry case turns golden, the meat inside will be rare to medium rare, depending on size and shape of the medallions. Every minute more will get them more done - and this is a perfect way to produce tasty but incredibly tough meat. As we love our meat almost raw, we just take them out as soon as they start bronzing - I am afraid you'll have to figure out your own point of no return. As a rule of thumb - if the case rips open the some juices spill out and bubble, it's ready.

Leave to rest for one or two minutes before serving.
This is to give the meat inside a moment to gather up the juices, and to let the steam inside lose some pressure. These little bundles don't smell like much in the oven, but once opened, their smell is hypnotic. I start drooling as I write this, I really need to get some dinner. Enjoy with a good red wine and better company.

10 November 2008

political yet again

Damn, living in this world sure is full of surprises. And some of the are even good ones.

Remember that article about food policies I posted the other month?

Seems the newly elected 'Farmer in chief' hasn't only read it as well, but also neatly added it to his energy policy - see here.

I have to admit, I am moderately impressed.

09 November 2008

poolside in the shade

One year, I almost missed Christmas.

Not 'to miss' as in 'to long for', but as in 'to overlook'. Seriously.

I was working in Pretoria, South Africa at that time, and Christmas in the southern hemisphere is something entirely different to what I had been used to. Christmas is the hottest time of the year down there, the sun is blazing, and when you're not in the pool or at the brai, you're watching cricket all weekend long.

Very, very different.

I only realized that it would be Christmas in a few weeks when suddenly the young ladies who were handing out flyers at the mall started wearing skimpy outfits in red with white fur trimmings. Instead of their usual skimpy outfits, that is.

Most stunning was the fact that I hadn't felt like Christmas was just around the corner. I love this season of the year, the buildup, the special food, everything. Sure, I am happy once all is over, but that doesn't keep me from doing all this over again come next year.

So, I decided, something had to be done to get me 'into the mood'. Home decoration was out of the question because a) it wasn't really my home and b) palm trees and strelizias just don't give themselves to seasonal motives.

So I would cook something, which always is a fine remedy to almost everything. It had to be seasonal, very German, resistant to heat and local ingredients.

In the end, I came up with the idea of making Stollen myself. Stollen is a traditional German christmas cake, with a lot of dried fruits and icing sugar and mostly a rather dry and industrial affair. But very 'christmassy' and quite German, so I decided I'd try.

The ingredients were not too hard to come by, and actually, it turned out much better than their store-bought 'originals'.

Like the Pfefferkuchen, Stollen has to rest some weeks before they taste right. But in the end, they are a fragrant, aromatic and despite all the icing-sugar susprisingly un-sweet affair that just screams to be enjoyed with a huge cup of black, unsweetened tea on a dark and rainy afternoon.

Though, as I can confirm from my own experience, they taste just as good poolside in the shade of some wild strelizia trees.

(makes four medium loafs)

1 kg all-purpose flour
1/2 l milk, lukewarm
150g sugar
500g butter, softened
1 sachet dry yeast

500g raisins
150g raisins (Zante currants)
150g candied orange peel
75g candied lemon peel (succade)
200 ml dark Rum

150g almonds, chopped
zest of one lemon, finely shopped
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon macis
1 teaspoon cinnamon
a generous pinch of salt
1 flask bitter almond essence

250g butter
250g icing sugar

One day before baking:
Dissolve the dry yeast in the milk, leave to activate for a moment. In a large bowl, mix the flour, butter, sugar and milk until well blended. Cover with clingwrap or a large plate and leave in a cool place over night.
A pound of butter is a lot, I know. But this is one of the reasons Stollen taste as they do, and it is a once-in-a-year thing, so just go for it.

In another bowl, mix the dried fruits with the rum. Leave to soak over night, stir once or twice to incorporate as much liquid as possible.
Again, lots of rum, I know. But you will want some moisture in the final cake, and this is a perfect way to smuggle it past the actual baking.

Day of baking:
Take the dough somewhere warm (like, the kitchen) knead thoroughly and leave to raise for about another hour or two.
The dough will have hardly risen over night, both because it is quite heavy with all that butter and it was stored cool. But the long fermentation helps both the taste and the stability of the dough. And as soon as the yeast gets somewhere warm, it'll work like a charm.

When the dough has risen, add the spices and the almonds and knead until well incorporated.
The bitter almond essence in Germany comes in small flasks containing about one and a half teaspoon of heavily aromatic oil. On the package, it states that one flask is sufficient for about 500g of flour, so if your essence comes in a different form, please adapt accordingly.

Add the fruits, and knead briefly to incorporate.
There should be very little to no liquid left of the Rum. The raisins are quite soft now, and make ugly brown smears in the dough if squashed, so be gentle.

Quarter the dough, and form four rectangular loaves. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to raise for another half hour.
Traditionally, the loaves have a lenghtwise ridge, as if the dough had been folded over. Nice, but entirely unnecessary. Especially as I still have yet to figure out why in some years, the dough keeps shape nicely, and in others just runs away. This year, it rose exceptionally well, but turned almost circular in complete ignorance of whatever efforts I had put in shaping it.

Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 160°C for about an hour, until a stick inserted comes out clean.
They will be covered in icing-sugar anyway, so it's fine if they come out a little pale rather than scorched. Also, I usually make two medium loafs and four tiny ones as gifts. If you make smaller ones, they will be done much faster.

Melt the butter, and leave to cool for a moment.

When the Stollen are out of the oven, leave to cool on a rack. While they are still warm, brush them with the liquid butter, using up all of it.
I am no one to complain about a lot of fat in cooking, but this is the one moment in the year I regularly cringe. I mean, seriously, that much butter in the dough already and now you SOAK it with butter? Yes, you do. Yes, it is cringe-inducing. And yes, you'll love it. Once in a year, you can do it.

Take the warm and butter-soaked Stollen and cover in a thick layer of icing-sugar, about a centimeter or more.

Cover tightly and leave to rest at least four weeks before serving.
I use both a layer of cling-wrap and then tinfoil to wrap them securely. During the rest, the moisture in the cake will even out - meaning that if there is some succade or a raisin close to the icing-sugar, it'll leave amazigly unsightly brown blotches in the sugary crust. That's ugly but fine, as it shows you've been working with natural ingredients. And it's nothing yet another layer of icing-sugar can't fix.

The Stollen keep very well, tradtionally until Easter. I have even found one in the back of our larder one year in late August, and it was still perfectly fine.

03 November 2008

this time of the year - part two

Four weeks now, the Pfefferkuchen dough has been quietly resting in his corner of our larder.

So yesterday, I took him up into our kitchen, to get warm again and wake up, and to make the actual cookies.

There's nothing much to say about this part of the process - you roll the dough and go wild with a cookie cutter.
Well, maybe I should tell you there is no point in trying to knead the dough - it's about as pliable as asphalt. Just cut the dough in chunks as it comes out of hibernation and flatten it.

But I can already say that it was a good decision to add more butter to the recipe, as the whole procedure was much less sticky than usual. Also, using darker honey resulted in a much more fragrant dough. Actually, I was quite surprised when I unwrapped the dough, with the memory of the exploded hair-dye still in my nose, and found something rather sweet and spicy and flowery inside. (Alright, there was still a faint whiff of ammonia, but nothing compared to the raw dough a month ago.)

Time is one of my favorite ingredients ever.

Anyway, baking these has to account for the fact that the Pfefferkuchen are little more than solidified honey, so you bake them at a low to moderate temperature (140°C - 160°C) until they just start to take on some colour.

I know, telling when a brown cookie starts to brown is a little bit of a challenge. But once they have stopped raising, it'll take just a few minutes more and then they're done. After the third tray you'll have the hang of it anyway.

Originally, they ought be larger, almost the size of a palm, and plain round or rectangular. But this way, they look nicer, and make better servings than their larger shapes. At least, that's what I think.

Right out of the oven, they taste sweet and spicy, but not particularly good. It is as if the different aromes still struggle to get acquainted, or like an ochestra still trying to find a common tune.

So, like in one of these 'stuck-in-an-elevtor'-movies, you box them all together in one airtight cookie jar and have them battle it out until they have found a way to live together in harmony.

In another four weeks, we'll have our friends over for our annual cookie craze. Then we'll open the lid again and see what has happened inside.

01 November 2008

a fitting send-off

Summer is definitely gone, with autumn hitting us full force. Which means rain, hardly no sunlight (for the working population, at least), and little hope for change.

It is the time for the last clean-up action in the garden, and for moving around plants that somehow have outgrown their current location. So today I dug out two roses, one gooseberry shrub and, believe it or not, a (small) rowan tree. All four are doing well now and look like they will wake up in spring at their new locations as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened to them.

Oh, and we picked the last apples. Quite a fitting send-off for a nice summer, don't you think?