29 March 2009

hard to spoil, yet harder to master

There are things that just can't be improved on.

Sometimes, food falls into that category. Especially when it's a classic, perfectly simple and delicious recipe, with only a few ingredients that come together to form something much better than the sum of its parts.

Even, as it is the case with this recipe here, if this means making a desert from nothing but chocolate, butter, eggs and a lot of air. This definitely is nothing for people counting their calorie intake, and probably not even for those with a sweet tooth who need to be able to eat substantial amounts of whatever there is for pudding.

This mousse au chocolat is perfect, it is velvety, sumptuous and voluptuous to a degree that anything more than a small bowl of it will leave you unable to stand up from your chair again. It'll steamroll you with magnificence, so to say. Please apply with appropriate consideration.

This is a recipe from a German Paul Bocuse cooking book 'Bocuse a la carte'. The book was my first foray into 'celebrity cooking', and apart from this one dish, I can't remember a thing of it. I've always been wary of anyone needing to see his face on the cover of a book.

Yet for this one recipe alone, the 'king of cooks' definitely deserves some of all those accolades in my eyes.

Unfortunately, I wasn't fast enough to get a picture of the finished mousse...

mousse au chocolat
(generously serves six)

200g dark chocolate (65% or more)
125g butter
6 very fresh eggs, separated
130g sugar (or less, if you like)
[edit: a pinch of salt]
20 - 50ml mocca or espresso (optional)

In a small casserole, gently melt the butter and the cocolate. Leave to cool for a moment, until no warmer than the inside of your wrist.

In a large bowl, whip the egg whites with about a third of the sugar [and the salt] until they form soft peaks.

In another bowl, mix the yolks with the remaining sugar until white and fluffy and quite stiff as well.
If you are in a hurry, you can save time by first just mixing the yolks with the sugar, then starting to beat up the whites. Once you are finished with those, most of the sugar will already have dissolved in the yolks, and they will go fluffy much faster.

Carefully fold the butter-chocolate mix and the coffee into the yolks.
No need to have both creams really incorporated, just mostly so. Each time you have to touch the mousse is once too often.

Gently fold in one third of the whites, then the rest.
If your whites are too stiff, you'll have chunks of the remaining like little 'îles flottantes', if they are too soft, the mousse will deflate before you get it well incorporated. This sounds much worse than it actually is, but after a few times, you'll see the difference. This is one of those dishes that is hard to spoil yet harder to master.

Pour into a glass bowl or individual containers and chill for at least twelve hours.
Due to the high amount of air, the mousse will cool down and solidify only very slowly.

The mousse goes well on its own, or maybe with some whipped cream or vanilla custard.

Due to the use of raw eggs, it doesn't keep at all.

24 March 2009

tiny dark patches

Just a pity I can't show you how the pizza looked underneath...

This weekend brought another success in terms of baking: home made pizza

I used the ciabatta dough as a base, and didn't add anything but some pulped tomatoes, a pinch of oregano, some fresh cherry tomatoes and sliced peppers and a generous helping of cheese.

It was gorgeous, and I am so in love with my new oven right now. The pizza was really great, crisp but not tough, with lovely tiny dark patches underneath. I think it was as good as it can get as long as you don't have a proper wood-fired oven handy. I am definitely going to make these again.

23 March 2009

breadroll-bashing at the breakfast table

Rituals are a nice thing.

Those little things we do, just because that's the way it's done, every time again. Comforting, reassuring, and something pretty essential to feeling 'at home'.

This weekend, I fear, I ruined one for good.

See, since my in-laws and we moved in together, we try to have a family breakfast each Saturday morning together. Every time it works out, my father-in-law drives to the bakery, fetching some bread rolls. And every time, with confounding regularity, something is less-than-optimal with the bread rolls.

Either they didn't pack him those he ordered, or too few, or too many. One Saturday, the bread rolls were hard and tiny, another one they were oddly light and airy and dried out already during breakfast.

Over the time, we changed our bakery several times, but the peaceful bickering around the breakfast table has become something of a charming little family ritual by now, at least for me.

Most of the times, it's the raisin buns that we find lacking somehow. There's the occasional chocolate chip bun in between, or the already day-old raisin bun. The crust too dark, too little raisins, the crumb too dense, the dough sticky, you name it. The final straw was the raisin bun that contained exactly one single, solitary, mortally depressed raisin.

As we already have home-made ciabattini on the table by now, my wife asked me to make raisin buns next. And so I did, and they turned out great. Definitely better than the slightly industrial fare we get from our local bakers.

And another step taken towards self-sufficiency! Well, at least in terms of bread rolls and buns...

But I am afraid the days of friendly bread roll-bashing at the breakfast table are finally numbered.

Most amazingly, this saturday also was the first really sunny day of this year!

raisin buns
(makes 16 buns)

1kg all-purpose flour
0,5l milk, lukewarm
190g sugar
200g butter, softened
1 sachet dry active yeast
a pinch of salt

200g raisins (sultanas)

four tablespoons condensed milk

The day before baking, mix all the ingredients except the raisins and the condensed milk in a large bowl. Knead until well combined (no visible butter pieces left), but no longer. Leave to raise in a cool room over night.

At least two hours before baking, knead the dough one last time, incorporating the raisins.
Usually, you can use the raisins straight out of their box. If they are especially hard and dry, though, you might want to soak them in a few tablespoons of water before.

Cut the dough into sixteen pieces of equal size (that is, halve four times in a row). Roll into buns, and leave to raise on a floured tea towel for about 90 minutes in a warm room. The buns should have increased visibly in volume (about 150%), but do not need to have doubled.
Pick off raisins remaining on the outside of the buns, they would only burn in the oven. But, as you can see in the pictures, I was rather sloppy on this myself. To my excuse, I have to say it was very early on Saturday morning when I made these.

And once again the old mangle linen is in good use...

Preheat the oven to 190°C, and put an old baking tray onto the bottom.

Right before baking, transfer the buns onto a baking sheet and brush with the condensed milk.
You can theoretically substitute the condensed milk with eggwash, but then the buns wouldn't smell the same... I'd use eggwash only in a dire emergency here.

When the oven has reached temperature, open the door, swiftly pour a small glass of water onto the old baking tray, put in the buns (somewhere in the lower third of the oven) and immediately close the oven door again.

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the buns are well browned all around. Leave to cool on a rack.

They are best when still slightly warm, with some jam or plain butter, though my wife seriously eats them with cheese. With some filling and a little bit of frosting, I can even imagine one of them making an adorable emergency cake.

These raisin buns freeze and re-toast well, so you can make a whole batch in advance and get out just a few for each weekend breakfast.

18 March 2009

some of this, some of that

Alright, the blue bowl helps, but still it's quite a pretty as salads come, isn't it?

Some arugula, some radiccio, some mâche, a few raisins and a sprinkle of my granola, and that's all it takes for a lovely, filling salad.

And quite a pretty one on top, don't you think?

PS.: Picture taken before I added the dressing. 'cause afterwards, it wasn't that pretty anymore...

17 March 2009

something that tastes of adventures

As long as I can think back, I have always loved lamb. Not the cuddly animals, but the meat.

Lamb roast with lemon, generous amounts of garlic and very British mint sauce was a common sight in my childhood home. (Actually, that was what we had on my mother's birthday, and it was lovely as ever.)

Later, there was lamb curry. Hot and darkly spicy in its Indian version, hot and fragrant in the Thai variety. Love it both.

It took me a while to figure out that there was another way of lamb I really loved, bridging the the two (or rather three) cuisines I had covered before. Spicy and hot, yet bright and lemony, exotic but not Asian.

We call this recipe 'lamb couscous', though the proper name ought to be 'stew of lamb we serve with couscous' or better even 'delicious oriental lamb'.

It's very simple in preparation, nothing fancy, but over the years I have gathered up many ideas I liked from various Turkish, Middle Eastern and Moroccan recipes, and ended up with this personal blend. It's a lamb stew that is heavily fragrant with bright lemon zest, a lineup of spices that leads from the lemony coriander seeds to the dark comfort of cinnamon, with just enough chili to make your mouth tingle.

Short, it is what you cook when your stomach needs some filling, your soul some inspiration, and your mouth something that tastes of adventures in faraway lands.

lamb couscous
(serves four, generously)

one lamb shank, about 1,5 to 2 kg
3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili flakes
3 teaspoons salt
ground pepper
garlic to taste

juice and zest of one lemon
2 cans whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon honey

1 medium zucchini
1 small can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 bundle cilantro (coriander green)

Debone the lamb shank and clean the meat of eventual sinews, cut into roughly walnut-sized chunks.
We get frozen lamb shanks of very good quality here, but it works with any cut of lamb that isn't too dry.

In a large cast-iron pot, heat the olive oil and sear the meat until well browned.

Add the spices and leave to roast for a moment, until fragrant. Deglaze with the lemon juice.
The amount of spices is merely a guesstimate. The proportions are right, but you might need a little more or a little less of each depending on the taste of the lamb and the tomatoes.
Generally, I try to have enough coriander in it to bridge the taste of the lemon with the tomatoes, and enough pepper to have something hot to balance the chilies.

Add the tomatoes, the lemon peel and the honey. Add the peeled garlic, if you want.
Once again, use only the yellow part of the lemon peel, not the white pith, it would make the whole stew bitter. I try to peel it off the lemon in one large curl, which apart from looking nice is much easier to get out again. But you might just as well chop it very fine and leave it in, the lemony taste will just be more pronounced then.

Simmer on low heat or in the oven at about 160°C until the meat is tender, approximately 90 minutes.

10 Minutes before serving, add the chopped cilantro and the chickpeas. Cut the zucchini into slices (or cubes, whatever you like) and brown with a little olive oil in a separate pan. Add to the stew right before serving.
You can, of course, also use eggplant here, and put both into the stew at the very beginning. But I prefer the different tastes, so I take the little extra effort of using another pan.

Garnish with a little chopped cilantro and serve with steamed couscous.

The lamb couscous freezes well, but will need serious re-seasoning once warmed up.

15 March 2009

a bit behind

Again, it's just been salad for us tonight. Not that that's anything to complain about, especially as it was octopus salad once more, as you can see above.

It's been my mother's birthday this weekend, so we're a bit behind in terms of cooking. But there's going to be some nice lamb couscous tomorrow night, and I am sure there'll be plenty to write about.

11 March 2009

two glimpses of weekend baking

a whole pile of madeleines to replenish my father-in-law's rapidly dwindling reserves

Once again, this weekend had been very nice and quite successful in terms of baking - nothing much to write about, but lovely to look at.
Above, a batch of madeleines, as they are quite a hit around here, and below a 'fried egg cake' my wife wished for.

I just wish I could offer pieces to taste here...

fried egg cake - apricots in vanilla cheesecake on a thin shortbread base

07 March 2009

short and round, always smiling

I already said that for me, cooking often is connected to memories of some sort. Some recipes more than others, and this special cake has gathered up a surprising payload of emotional connections for me.

There is my beloved grandmother, short and round, always smiling. I have never met anyone else who even at the age of 92 was still excited about new things, and who would boast among her (usually much younger) friends about her latest adventures.

One of these friends was a surprisingly tall lady, a little shy and a great home baker. One day, she brought this great poppy seed cake with her, and my grandmother called me downstairs because it was soo good. And it was, I basically forced her friend to hand me over the recipe on the spot. I still remember her her dentures clicking while she dictated me the ingredients, beaming with all the attention her cake had gotten her.

the poppy seed mill I got from my late uncle...The third person connected to this cake is one of my uncles. A great gatherer of things and stories, a one-of-a-kind adventurer and clutterbug. Living in an old farmhouse with foundations reaching back into the deepest middle ages, he collected old kitchen stuff, among many other things.

One day, when my brother and I were sleeping over, I noticed a small hand-mill among his latest findings. Curious about kitchen things even then, I asked about it, and he explained. It was a mill for oily seeds, like sesame, linseed and poppy seeds, as they would just clog an ordinary mill. I was intrigued, and at the end of our stay, he gave me the mill as a present. Quite a treasure for a boy at my age then.

Though for whatever reasons, I never came around to use either the recipe nor the mill until a few years ago.

It was when I stumbled across a batch of unmilled poppy seed in the supermarket that I remembered the cake and that I had always wanted to make it. But all of the people I connected to this recipe had passed away by then, and it took me a while to realize. It was quite a shock.

So, this cake remembers me of so many things: people who have touched my life, loved ones I miss dearly. It remembers me of the great things that come to us, sometimes in the simplest forms. It's like a little shout-out, saying look, I am here, and your memory lives on.

But even without the emotional baggage, this recipe is one of the best I have, and actually one of the very, very few I have never been tempted to meddle with. It is just so pitch perfect - the chunky almonds add structure, the raisins fruity highlights, and the lemon peel in the dough most pleasantly balances and contrasts the dark, mellow spicy taste of the poppy seed filling.

The name of this cake has given me quite some headache in terms of how to translate it.
The direct translation of 'Mohnrolle', poppy seed roll, would't work, because it's rolled but not a roll.
It might be called a strudel, but then every self-respecting home-baker in central Europe would (rightfully) rip my head off, because it's made with yeast dough, and not with proper strudel dough which is a class of its own. Neither would it be a roulade, as they are made with sponge...

In the end, I settled for 'poppy seed crown', as it seemed the least controversial option. Nothing controversial about the taste, though.

So, grandma, Mrs. Berkemeyer, uncle Günther, this one's for you.

I love how the whole house smells of lemony yeast dough when I am baking this one.

poppy seed crown
(makes twenty generous slices)

for the dough:
500g flour
100g sugar
250ml milk, lukewarm
1 scant teaspoon dry yeast
100g butter, soft
a pinch of salt
2 eggyolks
zest of half a lemon, or more to taste

for the filling:
500g poppy seeds
3/8l milk (375 ml)
250g sugar
65g butter
65g almonds, unpeeled and coarsely chopped
150g raisins
2 tablspoons dark rum
2 eggs

The day before baking, put the raisins in a jar or little bowl and soak with the rum. Leave overnight.
I think it might work with 2 tablespoons rum exactly, but I just top them up with rum so they're plumb and juicy the next day.

For the dough, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix with the kneading hook attachment until fully developed.
The dough will have to hold quite a lot of filling, so don't be afraid to knead it till it feels like a little rubber ball.

Leave to rise until doubled, best over night in a cool room.

Mill the poppy seeds right before you need them, as their oils, once exposed to the air, go rancid very quickly.
I have once tried to use pre-milled poppy seeds and found them atrocious. There really is no substitute for the real, handmade thing in this case.
Also, I have read several times by now that you actually can run them through the food processor until they are smooth, but I doubt this. And, given the history of my dear trusty handmill, this will hardly ever be an option for me.

In large pot, bring the milk to a gentle boil together with the butter and the almonds. Once the milk is infused with the almond taste, take off the fire and leave to cool for a moment.

Add the poppy seeds and the sugar and stir until well incorporated. Leave to soak for half an hour.
Mrs. Berkemeyer rather sternly pointed out never to boil the poppy seeds. I have no idea why, but consider yourself warned.

When the filling has soaked, add the eggs and the raisins. If there is some rum left, add to the filling. Stir well and keep at hand.

Take the dough and roll out to a large rectangle.
So far, I have never found proportions that wouldn't lead to a mess, so feel free to trust your instincts. It helps to transfer the dough onto a sheet of some kind, a kitchen towel or proofing linen, once it's ready, to roll it up later. (But as you can see in the picture below, I was lazy, and didn't, and got the mess.^^)

Pour the filling onto the dough and spread onto roughly 2/3 of it. Brush the remaining third lightly with eggwash.

I think I rolled it out a bit too large this time, so the dough got a little too thin. And just ignore all the booze...

Beginning with the filled side (opposing the third you left bare), start to roll up the dough. Put onto a braking tray and shape into a ring.
Of course, if you end up with a rather stocky roll, you can just leave it like that and call it poppy seed strudel instead. Or a roulade. Or whatever...

Luckily, I remembered to brush the eggwash from the centre outwards, so the baked crown got a nice pattern.

Brush the top with the remaining eggwash and bake at 175°C for about half an hour, until a skewer inserted comes out dry.
There will always be some poppy seed bits clinging to the skewer, so I didn't say 'comes out clean', but you'll see the difference.

Leave to cool on a rack and only cut once completely cooled.

Keeps nicely several days if wrapped, and in my humble opinion is better on the second day.

P.S.: Once again, this post is submitted to the YeastSpotting section of Susan's formidable blog Wild Yeast. Check it out, it is a great resource for all home bakers.

02 March 2009

like an old friend, with no surprises

It was a baking weekend again. Not as maniacally stuffed with baked goods as three weeks ago, but still.

Soon the scent of fresh bread will fill my kitchen...All the ciabattini I had made were gone already, so I made new ones. Slowly, the sight of the blue and gray linen on my kitchen table, bulging with the small breads during their final proof, is becoming one of my all time favorites.

Apart from that, I started a new experiment: Indian naan.

My wife loves it, and I think some of our visits to indian restaurants were inspired more by her desire for flatbread than for curries. I found a heap of recipes online, and so I boldly ventured where I had never gone before.

It turned out to a mixed success. The taste was right, but the texture was close to awful. Instead of downy, slightly elastic disks, I ended up with rather soft, entirely un-elastic slabs that were a bit sticky inside. Meh. This will need a lot more experiments before I can check this off as well.

Also, the weather has become warmer and rainy, which means it's about the most unbearable weather I can personally think of. Drizzle just above freezing point should be prohibited by law.

So, I had two good reasons to insist on comfort food on Sunday. Which, for me, means simple and a little classy, preferably something with a bit of cheese and some garlic. Something trusted, like an old friend, with no surprises.

All combined, I ended up with a distinctive longing for potato gratin the way my mother made it.

See, in my parents' home, boiled potatoes were a consistent staple. Actually, they were so much part of my childhood diet that even today I can barely stand them. But out of the oven, with a creamy, ever so slightly garlicky sauce and some cheese - I loved them.

Most unfortunately, my attempts at replicating the recipe so far had been mediocre at best. So what's a boy to do? He calls mum.

And look, just a tiny phone call later, I had all I needed to set my world right again. Okay, it wasn't that tiny a phone call and naturally encompassed not only food but also their dog's love for mud, the new tree in their garden and my brother's broken toe, but still it was much faster and way less fraught with risks than attempting another try just based on my memory.

Which, as it seems, wasn't too reliable in this case, because I could have sworn the potatoes had to be in the oven with a mix of cream and eggs. But no, seems I was to make a plain bechamel, making this gratin actually a very classic 'gratin dauphinois'. But that's just names, because for me, this was right what I was looking for - warm, cheesy, garlicky, well-known and entirely without surprises.

Well, actually there was one tiny surprise - it was even better than I remembered.

healthy, wholesome and plain delicious - steak, salad and potato gratin

gratin dauphinois
(generously serves four)

1,5kg potatoes
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caraway seeds

3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2l chicken stock
1/4l cream
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

150g mild cheese (gouda or similar), grated

If necessary, wash the potatoes, but do not peel.

In a sufficiently large pot, cover the potatoes with cold water, add the salt and the caraway, and boil until the potatoes are just about done. Drain and leave to cool a little.
As they will continue cooking in the oven, rather undercook them now.

In a small casserole, gently heat the butter until it foams, then add the flour. Stir gently until the flour starts to smell aromatically. Swiftly add the stock and the cream, stirring vigorously.
I have come to the conclusion that it is easier to add cold liquid instead of hot (at least for me). Provided you pour in the stock swiftly enough, the roux won't have time to thicken, and instead is still able to dissolve properly in the cool mix while you heat it.

Bring the bechamel to a gentle boil while stirring constantly, then keep cooking for about ten minutes. Add the garlic and about one third of the grated cheese and season to taste. Stir until the cheese is completely incorporated, then set aside.
Rather err on the pungent / salty / hot side here, as the potatoes will drain quite a lot of taste.

Peel the cooled potatoes and cut into slices about as thick as a pencil. Stack them in a slightly buttered oven dish.
If you want to, go for nice scale or roof tile pattern. Also, this is perfectly adaptable into portion-sized timbales or cups, if you want to make an impression at the table. But it doesn't taste one bit different if you just pile and pour...

Cover the potatoes with the bechamel and the remaining cheese. Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 180°C until bubbly and golden, about half an hour.
In the dish for the pictures, I was a little too generous with the flour and consequently had to add more liquid and ended up with much more bechamel than I usually would have made. It looked a little sloppy, but tasted great. There's never anything wrong with more gravy, in my book...

This is a classic side dish for good cuts of meat. But honestly, together with a salad it makes a perfectly decent main course just as well. Also, any leftovers can be microwaved perfectly and make great office lunches - just add a few chives or a pinch of herbes de provence for a slightly more complex taste.