27 July 2009

questioning my sanity

Next weekend, we'll have our annunal summer party at our house. Both my in-laws and us have invited all our friends, families, colleagues and neigbours, and we'll be around sixty to seventy people.

And together with my lovely wife, we'll be cooking for all of them.

I know, quite some people have already mentioned in rather frank words that they think I am insane putting up with all that work. But I love every minute of it, it is like an extra holiday for me. Especially this year, as I have taken a day off work on both friday and monday and therefore all will be moving along rather leisurely.

Even the weather forcast look great *knocks on wood*, much better than the years before. Three years ago, we had 8°C on a early august afternoon, can you believe it?

But probably the main difference this year will be the fact that I will (try to) make all the breads myself. I already mentioned some people are questioning my sanity?

So I have been tinkering around with my favourite breads, trying to come up with something interesting to add a little colour to the bread basket. Yesterday, I finally made a version of a spiced rye bread, the way it is popular in south Germany, that I really liked. Mostly caraway, but also fennel, anis and cardamon blend so well with the sourdough rye that they add complexity but do not overwhelm the bread flavour itself.

It is not too different from my 'partial' rye bread - just a little tweaked with a darker crust. But it is a lovely bread to have with just a little butter and salt, together with a nice salad and a big, cool beer.

Just the right thing for a summer party...

Caraway Rye Bread
(makes one 1.2 kg loaf)

100g wholegrain rye flour (German type 1150)
50ml water
80g sourdough starter (100% hydration rye)

final dough
200g medium to fine rye meal
100g high-gluten wheat flour (German type 550)
350g wholegrain wheat flour (German type 1050)
3 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dry yeast
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon anisseed
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon cardamon seed
420 ml water, lukewarm

The day before baking, mix all the ingredients for the levain and leave to ferment for 12 hours at room temperature.
Twelve hours are a rough guideline. It'll work just as good if you keep it fermenting longer.

The day of baking, roughly grind the spices in a mortar or a spice grinder. Mix with all the remaining ingredients and the levain and knead until medium gluten developement.
Of course you could leave the spices whole, but I find them too distracting, intense as they are, and prefer them a little broken down.

Leave to proof for 2 hours at room temperature.

Then, shape into a light ball, if possible without de-gassing the dough, and leave to rest for another half an hour.
Simplest way to pre-shape the dough would be pouring it onto a lightly floured surface and tucking the fringes underneath itself just once or twice so it is more or less round and the dough's surface taut as a bedsheet.

After that, shape the dough again as above, this time turning it around and sealing the seam with a few deft pinches. Put seam-up into a well-floured couche and leave to proof for another 1,5 hours.
Once again, I proofed the dough in a colander lined with a well-floured tea towel, and it worked flawlessly. I also made a longer loaf, almost like a batard, by using a rectangular cake tin instead of a colander.

Preheat the oven to 250°C.
More and more I come to the conclusion that it is not enough to have the oven thermometre show the desired temperature. If I let the oven heat up another twenty minutes then, the temperature loss from openeing the door and steaming is significantly less and makes for a much better crust.

Once the dough is ready, flip seam-side down onto a baking sheet and score.

Bake at a low rack with steam for about 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 210°C. Bake for another 40 minutes until the crust is dark and fragrant.
For baking with steam see my descriptions here.

Switch off the oven but leave the bread inside to cool for another 10 to 15 minutes with the door ajar inprove the crust.

Set on a rack to cool completely before cutting.

P.S.: And once more, this post is submitted to the YeastSpotting section of Susan's formidable blog Wild Yeast. I can't really recomment her site enough, it is a constant inspiration for me.

26 July 2009

smelled so good

Who says you can't have fun and learn something new at the same time?

Last night a dear colleague of mine had her annual summer party. You know, she of cantuccini and rasberry parfait fame.

As centrepiece of her buffet, she had a whole gyros skewer. A whole, life-size one for seventy people. So awesome!

(Not me, nor the actual skewers. As I didn't have my camara with me, this picture is curtesy of wikimedia commons, just to get an idea of what I am talking about.)

And best thing, I even got a go at trying to cut the meat properly! I can now honestly say that it takes a lot of practise to get thin slices off that huge beast, but it was great fun, very tasty, hot and smelled soooo good...

Now this makes for a very nice memory.

19 July 2009

grandma's little helper

The evolution of recipies is a funny thing.

This one started out as my grandmother's classic goulash, then became my mother's 'goulash with mushrooms', my 'meat stew' and finally, I realized it had become somthing rather close to the classic 'boef bourguignon'.

It is so far removed from its origins now that they hardly resemble each other, apart from both being braised meat with lots of gravy. But this version, with its intense taste, the gravy looking almost like crude oil and its endless adaptability holds a special place in my little brown book. (Which is where I scribble my cooking notes, edit and re-edit them until they become stable recipes.)

For one, this recipe works especially well with venison. You could use beef, but that would be a little unnecessary, especially as the cheaper venison cuts from legs and neck are really cheap when it's in season here. This is a recipe that explicitly benefits from more marbled meat with occasional cartilage and ligaments, as the long cooking time will mostly melt them and they'll add a wonderful, meaty and sticky quality to the gravy that you'd never get with a lean, expensive cut.

Most of the time, we use stag, as our wholesale market stocks it frozen and at a really good value all year round. But it works equally well with boar, or basically any other venison, even mixed. The stronger taste of game meat is perfectly suited to hold its own against the strong taste of the gravy, making it a perfect meal when you need something comforting, strong, invigourating your senses.

As almost any greens and sides work well with this dish, it is also one of my standarts when I want to clean out the freezer. And, as it freezes really well, I often make 'venison pie' from leftover stew and some puff pastry.

You see, it's just too useful (and tasty) recipe not to have in your repertoire.

stag 'bourguignon'
(serves four)

250g bacon in thick pieces

1kg stag (or boar, basically any venison except poultry)

1 medium onion, diced
4-6 cloves garlic
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 teaspoon white pepper, ground
one bottle dry red wine
0,5l water

2 tablespoons black currant jelly (or more to taste)

Cut the bacon into large pieces, like in the picture below, and gently brown in a large, heavy, oven-proof pot.
This is not to crisp the bacon, only to render out some of the fat so you don't need any additional oil to brown the meat.

Take out the bacon and set aside.

If necessary, clean the meat of any skin or thick tendons and cut into pieces the size somewhere between a golf- and a baseball. Fry at very high heat in the rendered bacon fat until very dark, allmost burned, though not necessarily done.
This step is essential for the colour of the final dish, so invest a little time here. (See 'Grandma's little helper' for troubleshooting, below.)

Return the bacon, add the spices and deglaze with the wine and the water.
If you have like a cheesecloth sachet for the spices, this would be the moment to use it for the juniper and the bay leaves. Juniper berries can be pretty vile if you bite on them, even though they are easy to spot and pick out later on. I never use one myself, I have to admit...

Put in the oven at about 180°C until the meat is spoon-tender, about two to two-and-a-half hours. Check occasionally if there is still enough liquid, if not add some water.

Take out of the oven and add the black currant jelly. Correct the seasoning if necessary, but usually the bacon will have been salty enough already.

Depending on how thick you like the gravy, thicken with a little flour mixed in cold water, some beurre manie or the commercial thickener of your choice.
Also, if the colour of the stew is not as appetizingly dark as one could wish for, I correct this with a few drops of caramel color, one of the priceless little helpers I gleaned from my grandmother. (This is especially usefull when in the hurry of the day one didn't have the time to sear the meat properly, and actually had to throw the block of frozen meat into the oven with the cold wine and the spices before hurrying off to the next appointment...)

Can be served with almost any vegetables, potatoes seem to be a must.
I prefer string beans, with lots of butter and garlic, and Rösti with a little molten cheese on top.

Keeps well in the fridge, freezes and reheats perfectly well.

14 July 2009

take a pot of smetana

Summer is barbecue time. And I just love the fact that I can throw almost anything onto the grill and it turns into a great meal with close to no effort, just a little sensitive timing. I mean, look at this:

This is basically nothing but a riff on my gambas con aioli. Only that instead of the delicious but rather heavy aioli I made a garlic smetana. Smetana is a close relative of creme fraiche, and is widely used in the cuisine of the region I am living in. It's got a relatively high fat contend, so it's far from being actually light, but much lighter than a purely oil-based aioli never the less.

And the recipe is basically the same as with the aioli, just instead of a mayonnaise base, you take a pot of smetana. Add the crushed garlic, the salt, honey and the lemon juice, and that's about it. Try it, you'll be surprised how versatile this dip is.

12 July 2009

gorgeous stuff

One of the nice things of summer apart from the weather is that my garden supplies me with a constant, well-ordered stream of fruit that somehow I have to incorporate into our diet.

The strawberries are almost over now, the rasberries are in their last hurrah, coming up next are gooseberries and red currants. The peaches and grapes are coming along nicely. The cherries seem to have skipped this year, for whatever reason, but the berries and apples are more than we ever had.

As I couldn't stand the thought of yet another rasberry cake (and they are my absolute favourites) it took me a while to come up with an idea of what to make with the daily harvest and the last few lonely strawberries.

For quite a while now, homemade ice-cream has been on my mind, but my experiments had yet to yield any edible results. And as I had shied away from buying a machine so far, it didn't look like I was going anywhere that direction any time soon.

But, (You knew there was a but coming up, didn't you?) bless my colleague, I had a recipe for rasberry parfait lying around somewhere, gathering dust. It seemed like a good moment to try my luck and see if it was as good as she had promised me.

And boy, was it good. This parfait doesn't use cream as main ingredient, but eggs, and it yields a surprisingly smooth, delicate ice with that luxurious, more-is mouthfeel that so for I only thought possible with custard-based, machine-mixed ice-cream. And even after a few days in the freezer, it turns smooth again after an hour in the fridge.

Gorgeous stuff.

As a special bonus, our fraises des bois were ripe now, yielding a total harvest of almost three tablespoons. Three incredible aromatic tablespoons, though, enough to fill out whole kitchen with their scent. They went into the parfait as tiny, sweet frozen brittles to add some structure.

This parfait has instantly become a staple in our household, and I bet we'll see endless variations of it over the time. Try it, you'll be surprised how great an ice-cream you'll get for how little work.

rasberry parfait
(serves eight)

4 very fresh eggs
150g sugar

400g rasberries (or other mixed berries)
1 sachet vanilla sugar
a pinch of salt

250 ml cream

In a large bowl, mix the eggs and the sugar until white and very fluffy.
This is where most of the air comes into your parfait, so take some time for this. Put it in your mixer and start preparing the fruit, I don't think you can overmix this...

Clean your berries and set aside some for decoration. Puree the rest and run through a sieve, if necessary.
With rasberries, I strongly recommend the sieve. Also, while small berries like my fraises des bois keep afloat in the mix, larger ones might need to be cut into pieces or else will sink to the ground.

Whip the cream until almost stiff.
If it gets too hard, it'll either remain as tiny chunks in the later mix (not necessarily a bad thing, though) or you'll lose too much air while working it in properly.

Take a few spoonfull of the fruit puree and fold into the whipped cream, then fold the remaining puree into the egg mix.

Next, fold in the whipped cream and whatever berries's you've held back for decoration.

Pour into a container of your choice, cover and freeze for at least three hours.
Freezing time depends on size and shape of the container you use, and on the power of your freezer.
If bad comes to worse and it's not entirely frozen yet when you have to serve it, claim it's intentional and point out that German for 'parfait' is 'Halbgefrorenes', half-frozen. It definitely tastes good even if still slightly goopy.

Keeps well in the freezer, though hardens significantly after one day. If served then, it should be taken out into the fridge for an hour or so before serving, it'll be a bit coarse but nicely scoopable still.

05 July 2009

coppery eggs and curried spinach

I know, I already have a post detailing my 'coppery eggs and curried spinach'.

But we had them again a few days ago, and apart from being really good, they were so pretty.

I was a little unhappy with the image of the original post, so I decided to put up a new one. And here it is: