rbbit

Slow Cooker Rabbit Stew

rbbitFor ages, it was tradition for me to go and visit Mister North in the countryside over August Bank Holiday weekend. My dancing all day at Carnival days are over so it was very relaxing to head to West Yorkshire to breathe in the fresh air, frequent country pubs and eat well.

Unfortunately I also cooked one of the worst meals I’ve ever made on one Bank Holiday visit. It was a rabbit stew of such dryness that it was almost completely inedible and every single time Mister North or I so much as think about eating or cooking rabbit, we mention it in hushed (and horrified) tones.

Rabbit is a very lean meat with almost no fat and thus it’s easy to cook all the moisture out of it. It’s also a meat that most people in the UK don’t regularly eat or cook because of a combination of it being seen as poor wartime food, the myxamatosis scare of the 70s and the Watership Down/Beatrix Potter effect. This means we don’t grow up learning how it should be cooked or eaten and have anything to compare our efforts too.

Even I took a while to get into the swing of cooking things I used to keep as a childhood pet, so getting the hang of rabbit took me time. The terrible rabbit stew came from a frozen wild rabbit and was then soaked in vinegar water to tenderise it. I won’t be repeating either of these things again. It might work better if I’d brined it though.

I also irrationally despise the tactic of cooking drier meats with bacon to bard them. I’m not entirely sure why this practice enrages me so much, but it’s also fairly pointless with the kind of lean back bacon in vogue these days. I seemed destined to never exorcise the ghost of the terrible rabbit stew.

Then as my slow cooker chronicles progressed and I was making seriously succulent stews, I decided to risk doing bunny in it. And it was fantastic. It was one of the dishes I enjoyed the most while recipe testing and I was really disappointed when it didn’t fit into my chapter structures and had to be set aside (hopefully for next time.) When I saw a wild rabbit at Herne Hill Market this August Bank Holiday weekend, I knew the time had come to revisit the technique, adding a beautiful big Bramley apple, some fresh tarragon and white wine this time. Read more

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Dos and Doughnuts in the Kitchen

beaters

As I’ve mentioned in a few posts this summer, I haven’t been spending huge amounts of time in the kitchen. My cooking mojo seems to have taken the holiday I haven’t and I’ve not been venturing much beyond finally getting my (non cream based) carbonara just right, breaking records for the number of frittatas one person can eat and eating lots of salad and fruit. So when I was invited to a Bank Holiday picnic it seemed like the time had come to start making a bit of an effort again.

In between not cooking very much and buying eggs in such numbers my local shop actually laugh at me, I’ve also joined Instagram. I’ve really been enjoying it, finding it complements Twitter nicely. I expected it to be about 50% photos of cats and kids but surprisingly there are few of either. What there are a lot of are photos of doughnuts.

London is in the grip of doughnut mania. I know they’ve been gradually making their way from cop show cliche to food blogger fascination for a while. St John started their journey from Krispy Kreme kiosk to the current in-thing (with a little help from The Faerietale Foodie) but call them beignets, donuts or gravy rings, they are everywhere this summer.

Inspired by the reverence with which doughnut fiends speak of Justin Gellatly, formerly of St John Bakery and now of Bread Ahead in Borough Market and because he’s a fellow Ebury author, I thought I would make his legendary recipe for doughnuts and fill them with a wonderful this lemon ricotta semolina custard by Ruby Tandoh. Her custard slice recipe with this is peerless and I needed an excuse to make the filling again.

I almost instantly ran into a problem with Justin’s recipe. It called for fresh yeast and at 8pm on a Friday night, that’s not something I could lay my hands on easily. I subbed in half the amount of dried active yeast by adding it to 50ml of the water required in the recipe and allowing it to bubble for 15 minutes before I started mixing.

And there in lay the second problem with the recipe: the mixing. It called for a stand mixer or Kitchen Aid and involved almost 20 minutes of active mixing in stages. Thing is, I don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer and I have a serious hump about the number of recipes by big name authors and cooks these days that assume the majority of people own a piece of kitchen equipment that start at £300 and are the size of a small Sherman tank.

I’ve lost count of the number of the TV chef recipes (yes, I am looking you Ms Pascale and Mister Oliver. Stay behind after class please) that tell you to buck everything into the mixer bowl, turn it on and come back after a certain amount of time. At risk of sounding decreipt and resistant to change, getting a machine to do it all for you isn’t cooking to me, it’s assembly. Where is the education? The cues to look for? The touch, taste and feel of food? The explaining why you do something? The alchemy when it comes together?

It’s as sanitised as those supermarket ‘just cook’ ready meals that feature a chicken breast, a sachet of sauce and suggest the veg on the side. One step up from simply piercing the plastic, they are cooking at the most basic level of the word. I see nothing wrong with a proper ready meal, but something about simply preparing components with emotional detachment but calling it cooking bothers me. Even with the slow cooker, I avoid this style of just warming ingredients up, making simple, quick dishes that are still actively cooked and created in a method that teaches and engages you with your food and a specific method of cooking.

I’m well aware some of this resentment of Kitchen Aid cooking comes from the fact I can’t afford something that cost more than my washing machine (and that I haven’t had the chance to slip onto a wedding list yet) and that I’ve never really found a time when it would be properly worthe the cost and storage space. But most it comes from the annoyance that as I work hard to learn to write recipes that both work and teach people to cook, many big names take the path of least resistance and education (or effort.) It doesn’t take much to do a Nigella and give non machine methods alongside.

This isn’t to say that I’m a Luddite who does everything by hand and owns a mangle (although my dad owned a car that had to be hand cranked sometimes when I was a kid…) I love my stick blender and its little chopper bowl attachment. Clearly I’m a bit obsessed by slow cookers. I can completely understand why people with limited time, energy or grip use food processors or breadmakers. But I still like to get involved with my food and feel and see the changes rather than let something else take all the strain and responsibility all the time.

So having started making the doughnuts, I mixed mine with my electric hand whisk. The beaters simply created something akin to a dough tornado and did little. I used the dough hooks and mixed and mixed and mixed. I’ve made marshmallows quite a few times and they were as easy as falling off a log in comparison. Standing holding the electric whisk and beating the dough endlessly made me consider trawling Gumtree for any unwanted stand mixers as my arm hurt and my hands cramped.

However all the buzz told me Justin Gellatly’s doughnuts are the best in the world, so I thought it would be worth it. The fact the dough was both sticky and greasy wasn’t worrying me too much. It had to chill overnight after all so that would sort the Copydex texture, wouldn’t it?

Sadly no. Next morning the dough was just as greasily elastic and globular as the night before. The only hint in the recipe was that it should be smooth and elastic and as it was both those things as well I was baffled. This is where I needed the explanation of the sensations of cooking not just an instruction manual on timings. I know Justin is a commercial baker and uses machinery, but if you’re writing books for home cooks, that’s not much use to me.

I stickily rolled them into balls and proved them them again. Instead of looking taut and tight like Justin advised they were slacker and softer than one of my thighs and when I obeyed the instruction to cover them with clingfilm, they stuck to it like a clingy child and had to prised apart.

Getting them off the floured trays and into the oil was a disaster. They expanded into strings like cheap mozzarella, sticking first to me, then to the scraper, then to the side of the pan and finally flopping wetly into the hot oil and puffing up momentarily before subsiding into a lopside comma shape. I tried five of them, each one getting worse and more oil logged than the previous one before I gave up.

I’m genuinely not sure which of us was more deflated by the experience. Despite getting my oil to exactly 180℃ as per the recipe, the shape shifting of the doughnuts meant the outside was Snog Marry Avoid contestant tan while the middle was gluey white. The cooked bits were as bready as Mother’s Pride and even dipped in sugar, tasted bland. I threw the other 15 lumps of squish in the bin and went to M&S to stock up on dulce de leche teacakes instead.

Instinct tells me it was probably the change in yeasts that was the problem, compounded by the inability to mix the dough like instructed, but the whole experience left me frustrated. It’s a complicated recipe but relying on a costly piece of kit and a difficult to obtain type of yeast with no allowance for home cooking, irritated me. Quite simply why write commercial recipes for home kitchens without an attempt to adapt?

Am I being harsh? Or should recipe writers have a duty to cater to the majority of their readers without explicitly explaining why you need a certain piece of equipment? And does it annoy you when only the mechanical version is given or am I the only person in town still doing it the old fashioned way?

 

cherry float

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream Float

cherry floatI haven’t been cooking very much this summer. Partly because I’m on a go slow in the kitchen after testing over 350 recipes for both Recipes from Brixton Village and Slow Cooked and partly because all I’ve wanted to eat for weeks are cherries.

Particularly abundant and well priced this season, I’ve been buying pounds and pounds of them from Brixton Market for £1.50 a lb and just gorging on them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are one of my favourite fruit and it’s been utter luxury to indulge like I have been. In fact, I’ve even managed to have too many of them and needed to find ways to use them up.

Some of my lack of appetite has come from how warm it’s been and I’ve been alternating my cherry fest with ice lollies and sorbets, but hadn’t felt the urge for actual ice cream until I saw some leftover chocolate in the cupboard to go with those cherries and inspiration hit.

I have been a lip balm queen since Mister North bought me a pot of Morello Cherry lip balm from The Body Shop for my twelfth birthday. I cycled through their whole range, not dallying near the Kiwi Fruit one for long, and fell particularly in love with a limited edition version that was Chocolate Cherry. I rationed that little pot out for ages and each swipe of it reminded me how much I loved the combination. I moved on from it to a prized Dr Pepper Lip Smacker and from there to my current die hard obsession with Carmex.

I hadn’t really thought about my lip moisturising choices as a teen since those heady days, but standing there with a bag of cherries in one hand and a bar of chocolate in the other and I just knew what I had to do. I had to combine all the best things of my early years and make a chocolate cherry Dr Pepper ice cream float immediately.

Chocolate Cherry Ice Cream (makes one litre)

  • 450g fresh cherries, pitted
  • 25g sugar
  • 200g milk chocolate
  • 600ml double cream
  • 397g tin condensed milk

This is the simplest ice cream possible made to a non churn recipe I love so much I even used it for my Observer Food Monthly piece last year. It freezes quickly and scoops straight from the freezer and can be adapted to any flavour you fancy.

Begin by pitting your cherries. I find this oddly relaxing and not particularly faffy to do. I end up with lots of halved cherries. Lay them out as flat as possible and sprinkle the sugar over them to macerate them. This makes them lovely and juicy. Leave for up to an hour.

Break the chocolate into a large bowl and set it over a pan of boiling water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base. Stir it well as it melts to keep it nice and glossy. Once melted, set it aside to cool down for about 10 minutes.

Take the macerated cherries along with any juices they have created and roughly puree them with a hand blender. A bit of texture is fine, but try not to have any bits of skin if you can help it. Set them aside.

Pour the double cream into a large bowl and beat until it starts to thicken. You don’t want it to be whipped cream, but to get to the point where it flops over lazily and thickly. At this point, beat in the condensed milk until combined and airy. An electric whisk is nice here but some old fashioned elbow grease does the trick too.

Stir in the melted chocolate and the cherry puree. Fold until completely combined. It will be a pale pinky brown in colour. Pour it all into a plastic container and put the lid on it. Freeze for at least 4 hours. It will be a lovely creamy soft serve style.

Chocolate Cherry Dr Pepper Ice Float (makes one)

  • 330ml can full fat Dr Pepper
  • 1 large scoop chocolate cherry ice cream
  • kitsch item to accessorise, either an umbrella or gaudy cocktail stirrer

To make your ice cream float, get a good sturdy glass and pour an ice cold can of Dr Pepper into it. I am that person who genuinely likes the taste of diet fizzy drinks usually, but it’s got to be the real deal here.

Then gently drop your scoop of ice cream into the glass. The soda will fizz and froth and create the finest carbonated beverage on earth. Stick a straw in the glass, swizzle with a stirrer (I favour a flamingo myself here) and set a long spoon on the side before getting stuck in.

You cannot eat or drink an ice cream float neatly so don’t try to. Simply savour the flavours and revel in it. When I say this float is the taste and excitement of my whole childhood served up in one glass, I don’t think I’m quite doing it justice. It’s my favourite thing of the whole summer, maybe even the year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coffee Crème Caramel

IMG_4012I’m loving the bit in the Saturday Guardian Cook section where well known food people choose their last meal. The fact that they are allowed to set the scene as to where they’d eat it and with whom reminds us that a good meal is about more than just the food. But the food is pretty important too and each time I read one of these I start debating what my final meal would involve.

There would definitely be squid, but would it be a tender slow cooked squid stew with ripe tomatoes or would it be chargrilled for moments til the edges blacken and the tentacles have the right amount of chew? Maybe some deep fried crispy salt and pepper squid? Or would I regret not having the salt and chilli version?

Would I have a perfectly pink middled duck breast or a steak so blue it’s still mooing for the main course? Indecision is my greatest forte so I just get myself tied up in hungry knots each Saturday morning, except for one thing. I know exactly what I’m having for dessert. Crème Caramel.

I love crème caramel so much there is no such thing as a crème caramel I don’t like. I even love the hell out of those 69p for four supermarket ones that are like a milk jelly in an oddly shaped tub. My love is unconditional for this classic dessert. Yet for years I never made it, reaching for the Bonne Maman ones in the posh glass ramekins instead and believing it would be fiendishly tricky to make.

I’m not sure what convinced me to try making it when I had such a mental block about it, but I had the idea of doing slow cooker crème caramel for the book and discovered that making it is even easier than eating a whole family pack of them in one sitting. You’ll have to wait til Slow Cooked comes out on November 6th for the slow cooker version, but here’s a stovetop one that combines the flavours of coffee and vanilla to tide you over.

Coffee Crème Caramel (makes 4)

  • 120g sugar
  • 60ml water
  • generous pinch salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 400ml whole milk

Do not think about making this with skimmed or semi-skimmed milk or it won’t set properly and will collapse on itself if you try to turn them out of the ramekins. I actually tend to use milk powder for as I live in a very Portuguese area where everyone keeps a tin of Nido in the house.

Start by making the caramel. Put the sugar and the water in a stainless steel pan on the cooker. Non stick pans can make the caramel crystallize and become granulated. Melt the sugar over a medium heat, stirring constantly.

When the sugar is completely melted, stop stirring and allow the caramel to boil to a dark rich colour. Keep a close eye to make sure it doesn’t burn. It should take about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat immediately. Add the salt and stir in.

Pour an equal amount of caramel into each of the ramekins and set aside to cool and harden. Don’t put them in the fridge or the caramel becomes soft and tacky. It will take about an hour for the caramel to set. Leave aside until needed.

To make the custard, warm the milk in a pan. While it is coming to a simmer, beat the eggs in a bowl with the caster sugar until they are thickened. When the milk is warm, pour a little bit of it into the eggs and whisk. This tempers the eggs to stop the custard splitting.

Pour the tempered eggs into the remaining milk and whisk together. Heat gently until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Add the vanilla extract and the instant coffee and stir in well. Remove from the heat immediately and pour the cooked custard into the ramekins, leaving a few centimetres of room for expansion.

Set the the filled ramekins into a deep baking tray and pour enough boiling water into the crock to come about two thirds of the way up them. Carefully set this bain marie into the oven and and cook the crème caramel on 150℃ for 25 minutes.

Lift the crème caramels out of the oven. There should be no bubbles round the edges. Allow the crème caramels to cool for an hour or so and then put them into the fridge overnight. This means the caramel will absorb into the crème properly

When you are ready to serve, simply turn the crème caramels out onto small plates and eat. The caramel will cascade down the side of the custards as well as flavouring the base of them, mixing beautifully with the soft rich coffee flavour to make the most delicious version you’ve ever eaten. I’d keep telling you how good they are, but I’ve got my mouth full…

pineapple sorbet

Pineapple Sorbet

pineapple sorbet Aside from friends and family, I think the thing I miss the most about Northern Ireland is its selection of ice lollies. Considering its such a chilly corner of the world, we love our frozen treats. Ice cream has its merits, but there’s something about ice lollies that we especially enjoy.

These lollies held a massive lure when I was a kid popping to the local shop with my pocket money. Sometimes you went for quantity over quality and got handfuls of those Mr Freeze freezepops in the long plastic containers, making sure there was at least one Blue Raspberry flavour per batch. A freezepop fest didn’t count unless you dyed your tongue an unnatural shade.

But more often, it was all about branded lollies on wooden sticks. I’m old enough to remember when they embossed jokes onto the sticks and this was worth the potential to set your teeth on edge with the wood. Walls offered us Mini Milks and Funny Feet, but I didn’t like either much. Lyons had the iconic Fab and the Mivvi, but they were cinema lollies not hot day ones. I adored Irish company HB‘s Fat Frogs which were apple flavoured and had a soft spot for a shark shaped one that was sharp and citrus flavoured and a blackcurrant Dracula lolly too, but my love lay (and still does) with Norn Irish classics from Dale Farm.

Leaning over the freezer trying to choose between a Rocky Rasper (raspberry, but not blue), the sugar free but lovely lemon-lime Supa Cool, a smooth vanilla Mr Frostie (in lieu of the toy lolly maker of the same name) or the crocodile branded Choc Pop was tricky. I never wanted a Joker with its orange outer and ice cream middle and I hated orangey Quenchers too.

My first choice was always the Pear Picking Porky, the undisputed classic ice lolly of all time. Not, as my Slovakian surrogate sister once asked, pig flavoured, but made of that artificial pear flavouring that is nothing like the fruit, these lollies the spot every time. I’ve even eaten them walking up Botanic Avenue on Boxing Day. The only problem with them is that they are so popular they sell out easily, meaning one needs a back up plan.

For me this comes in the shape of a Polly Pineapple. So when I found myself far from Belfast in the middle of a heatwave and craving frozen salvation, I knew I could muster a pineapple lolly in London rather than a pear one. Surely it would be pretty simple?

And it was, coming in with a whopping three ingredients. The tricky bit came when I could not for the life of me get the lollies out of the cheapo moulds I bought in the pound shop in one piece. The sticks slid out, there was swearing and then in a fit of frustration, I scooped the slightly slushy sorbet out with a spoon and refroze it in a Tupperware. Success…

Pineapple Sorbet (makes about 500ml)

  • 1 whole fresh pineapple or 425g tin of pineapple chunks
  • 100g sugar
  • 75ml water

I like tinned pineapple (blame my Mallory Towers habit as a kid) so that’s what I used but if you can get a super sweet and ripe fresh pineapple, it’d be perfect. Sniff the base of it, discreetly if in store, and if it smells strongly of pineapple, it is perfect. Peel it, remove the core and chop it up making sure you keep any juice.

If using the tinned, tip it, juice and all into a large bowl. Using a hand blender, blitz the pineapple of either kind and its juice together until smooth and lump free. It should like those nectar style juices you get that contain pulp. Set aside and chill.

Make a simple sugar syrup by combining the sugar and water in a pan and heating together until it forms a thick syrupy texture without changing colour. Remove from the heat and allow to cool down. You will have slightly more here than you probably need for the recipe but it keeps well in the fridge and is perfect for sweetening iced tea in hot weather.

Add about 50ml of the cooled sugar syrup to the pineapple pulp and stir. Pour into a Tupperware container and put the lid on. Put in the freezer and chill for 4 hours. Either give it a stir once an hour with a fork to break up the ice crystals and keep it smooth or leave it alone for 3 hours and then blitz it again with the handblender and freeze for another hour.

Take it out of the freezer about 10 minutes before you want to eat it. It will be smooth in texture and almost like a really really good Slush Puppie. In fact, you could add a tiny bit of dark rum and drink it as a frozen cocktail through a wide straw if you liked. It tasted enough of a Polly Pineapple to quench my craving, but better enough to be worth the effort. Plus it gave me a chance to get the fake parrot and pineapple ice bucket out…