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Maple Rosemary Popcorn Pie

Maple Rosemary Popcorn Pie

At this time of year, although Hallowe’en is to me a very Irish celebration, I do like a spot of Americana in my stomach as the autumn nights draw in. Glorious orange pumpkins, soups and stews spiked with smoky frankfurters or the same sausages battered and served up as corndogs, glistening sticky pecan pies and handfuls of crispy popcorn. They seem to have the right flavours for the season and sheer greed and a slightly abstract conversation made me wonder if I could perhaps multi task and turn the latter two into one dish for ultimate eating?

I wanted something slightly more grown up that the crunchy toffee coated popcorn I so desired as a child on cinema trips which now seems sickly sweet and artificial. Reading recipes for caramel corn made me think mine needed the adult twist of sea salt for sure,  but I wanted something else to lift it and my memory went back to this lovely post for Rosemary Sea Salt Millionaires’ Shortbread that I’ve been meaning to make for yonks. Seeing that my rosemary bush was the only thing in the garden to survive the summer of slugmageddon decided it for me and that woody floral flavour would be my secret weapon.

Maple Rosemary Popcorn Pie: makes one 9″ pie (or 4 small ‘uns with tonnes leftover like me)

  • 250 g sweet shortcrust pastry
  • 3 tablespoons popping corn
  • 1/2 teaspoon coconut oil
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 50g golden syrup
  • 50g maple syrup (use all golden if you don’t have maple)
  • 150g golden caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • large pinch of sea salt (enough to just taste the salt)
  • tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

First start with your pastry. You can just use bought stuff for this, but if you’re making your own, may I recommend the sweet shortcrust by Dan Lepard in Short and Sweet? I’ve always had issues with my pastry shrinking no matter how well I chill it and this recipe is foolproof. I’m not going to write it all out because Dan explains it well elsewhere if you search, but really because if you’re buying a cookbook, it should be this one. Call it an early Christmas present…

Line your tart tin and chill the pastry again before blind baking for 15 minutes at 180℃ or until just colouring the palest golden shade. Leave to cool while you make your filling.

Place three tablespoons of raw popping corn kernels in a paper bag (I use leftover flour bags) and the smidge of coconut oil and fold the bag over loosely and microwave for about just under 2 minutes (I usually whip it out at 1.45 or it starts to burn) and voila! You have the quickest easiest popcorn possible. If doing something as delicious as this just carry as normal, but you’ve skipped the whole washing up stage.

Now melt the butter, sugar and syrups together in a pan. I’ve used unsalted butter because it’s too easy to overdo the salt with regular butter and then adding more salt, so have gone for a blank canvas, but obviously, you can improvise if you only have salted butter. Take the mixture off the heat and add in the chopped rosemary and the salt. Allow the mix to cool for about 10 minutes. Don’t skip this stage or your mix will be so liquid to pour in the case, you’ll stick everything in the kitchen to itself, you and the tart case as I did the first time.

Once the mix is cooled slightly, beat the eggs in it. They won’t curdle now you’ve reduced the temperature of the mix. Then stir the popcorn into the mix. You’ll need to do this fairly carefully and repeatedly as popcorn floats quite well and resists dunking unless really coaxed. I originally used this caramel corn which made it easier, but a) really isn’t very nice or worth the washing up and b) made the pie so sweet, the Scottish person I tried it on couldn’t eat it. Once your popcorn is entirely coated, pour the filling into the tin making sure you don’t overfill or the whole thing will stick. Bake the large case at 180℃ for about 40 minutes whereupon it should be golden brown but still slightly soft in the middle.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool and set slightly. Both this pie and the pecan pie it’s based on are best served slightly warm but not hot unless you want to remove several layers of skin from your mouth with molten sugar. This pie calls out to be served with clotted cream or really good vanilla ice cream. Just don’t expect as much crunch as pecan pie and you’ll love it. The popcorn is both soft and sugar coated crisp and the filling is like proper butter toffee with bite. The salt should be just enough to enhance the sweetness and the rosemary adds just enough interest to leave you guessing what the extra flavour is. Once I’d toned the sugar down, this was great.

If you like popcorn, you’ll love encasing in butter, sugar and syrup and then crisping it right up. If you don’t love popcorn, you’ll think this is just another American oddity, but to be honest, that’s why I rather liked it!

 

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Venison Christmas dinner, and the best leftovers ever…

Uncooked venison pieThe centrepiece of our Christmas dinner this year was a roasted leg of venison. Pretty good as it stands (ahem), but curiously, this tale ends up being all about the leftovers: the venison pie afterwards stole the show!

Cooked venison pie

My girlfriend’s family had served the roast venison a couple of Christmasses before, but it had overcooked disappointingly. I was given the challenge/opportunity to see if I could do it better. The roast recipe (see photo below) is from the Tatton Park estate, and I was handed a photocopy, complete with annotations. Now I like a good bit of venison, but hadn’t cooked a joint this size before, and was aware it’d need a bloody good basting to keep it tender. Hardly the hassle-free roast which is recommended for a peaceful Christmas Day, especially the first cooking for the in-laws!

Roasted joint of venison

I ordered the meat from Paul in the market (asking him to leave me the bone), and started work on Christmas Eve by making a stock … roasting the bones for 30mins before boiling up with a mirepoix and some herbs for a hour or so, until the stock tasted rich, robust and savoury. Venison’s very lean, but this yielded a creamy covering of fat, which I reserved and reformed for later use. While the stock was bubbling I also made up a batch of spiced Eastern European-style red cabbage. It’s normally better then day after making it, and has a good tang with caraway seeds, wild honey and bramley apple.

Spiced Red cabbage

After their experiences with the venison joint I was a little wary of following the recipe to the letter, so on Christmas Day we got cracking by late morning. This gave us time for a slow, low cooking; although potentially less than the recipe called for. After making the Stilton, bacon and panko stuffing, this got rolled up inside the joint which was then retied. I also stuck spears of that venison fat into the flesh, to help lard it. I wrapped the joint tightly in foil for all but the last 40 mins or so, when the foil covered the whole roasting tin, so the juices could really get going. All in all it was probably cooking for a shade over three hours, basted regularly. The meat rested for a half hour while I whipped up gallons of gravy, deglazing the pan with port and using the stock to build up the flavour.

Christmas dinner 2011

After our Spiced Beef starters, our Christmas plate was finished off with hasselback potatoes, roasted parsnips, sprouts with bacon and chestnut, and sweet potato mash. A great spread, with plenty of flavour, variety and colour for the main meal. The venison was very tender and moist (phew!) and the taste was good and richly gamey, but not exceptional (admittedly this was up against the Spiced Beef, which was a real winner by any standards). We had a leftover meal on Boxing Day, with as many of the trimmings and accompaniments as our plates would hold, but we didn’t fancy eating rich slices of venison every day until New Year.

Pie ingredients

One of my Christmas presents was the OCD Chef’s Chopping Board (my friends know me too well) and I’d joked about keeping my scalpel in the kitchen with it. My inner designer feels totally at home with a scalpel blade, and I fancied building on a couple of previous attempts to decorate a game pie. With around half a kilo of cooked venison, and a gale blowing outside, pie seemed like the perfect prospect. A post-Christmas pie, made with Christmas presents, leftovers, and a nod to the frozen north…

We came home after a shorter-than-planned afternoon walk in the heavy winds – any hot port in a storm –  and we threw ourselves into making the leftover ‘pie to end all pies’. Venison, stilton and gravy were all to hand. This was to be rich, rumbustious and made to revel in the excesses of the Christmas period: game, port and piggy bits, but I had a sweet potato leftover to use up. I reckoned that, much like the butternut squash in my venison pasties, this token vegetable’d work well.

I rendered down the bacon fat, and melted some butter, along with a sprig of rosemary. Then in went a few shallots, the diced bacon, and some cubes of wild boar salami, followed after a bit by cubed sweet potato and a hare stock cube. The plan was to soften everything through, cooking gently and once that was done, it all came off the heat. We discarded the stuffing from the venison, and cut the meat into properly decent-sized chunks. Venison has a tendency to firm up if overcooked, so I reckon bigger was better, and should guard against dryness. The hunky chunks of deer got mixed up well with the other cooled, cooked ingredients, then I crumbled in generous handfuls of Stilton to the mix. It looked great.

There was probably about 330ml of gravy left over from Christmas Day (a handy size… can you imagine if they sold tins of real gravy next to the Coke and Irn-Bru?) so that got warmed up in a pan, along with  teaspoon of Gentleman’s Relish (the secret ingredient),

Cutting board and reindeer

some extra hare stock cubes, a tablespoon-sized blob of redcurrant jelly, and significant quantities of ‘cooking’ port. After thickening to a wonderfully rich, thick consistency this was gently and methodically poured over the pie filling in the dish.

I’d already rolled out the pastry (Jus-Ro’s finest… I didn’t fancy making puff (or rough puff) this time) and traced around the pie dish, gathering up the offcuts to make decorations with my trusty blade. Once the pie dish was filled we had fun with the decorations! I’m really pleased by how it came out… there was no over-arching theme but I did reference my other half’s Christmassy knitwear for the reindeer inspiration. After that we got busy making trees and stars, then fitted everything together in a 3D manner. I think I went a bit too heavy with the egg wash in places, but I love the seasonal tableaux we came up with. It’s certainly raised the bar for the next pastry creation!

The finished dish got cooked for about 40mins in a medium oven: I didn’t want to overcook the filling and this was just enough to puff the pastry topping up perfectly and the contents heated to a slight bubble. By the time it came out we were almost climbing the walls with anticipation… just enough time to get the celeriac mash and a healthy portion of the spiced cabbage on the side. Oh, the smell…

Venison pie and mash

And we’re talking about a full-on, revelatory moment on the first bite. Boom… a gloriously grown-up pie fest… with the tang of the stilton, the richness of the game, the sweetness of the port-laden gravy and sweet potato meltingly intimate together on a fork. Proper posh pie heaven. Big chunks of succulent meat and light pastry were so good together… I didn’t want to stop eating it. Next day the pie made a glorious re-appearance alongside some home-fried chips and peas on the side. Which, if anything, was better than the first portion, as the gravy and filling had mellowed and mixed even more. No point in dressing up the accompaniments… pie and mash, pie and chips. Dead simple, job done. Fan-bloody-tastic!

Venison pie and chips

PS. Drinks during the cooking were provided by the superlative Buxton Brewery (their cracking Wild Boar making its debut next to the aptly game in the kitchen): then we washed the pie down with a suitably Nordic brew, Einstök‘s Icelandic Pale Ale. I like my ales at anytime, but a pie and a pint is a marriage made in heaven. Happy Christmas, deer!

 

A tail of pork pie…

After our all too brief dalliance with summer, autumn is upon us once more. Some might moan, but it’s my favourite time of the year. Crisp sunny days, scuffly crunchy leaves, purple tinged sunsets, the smell of bonfires and an excuse to indulge in a few more carbs. Have I converted you yet?

I decided to take advantage of this first really cold snap this week with a pie for dinner. What could be better than lots of seasonal ingredients topped with flaky puff pastry? What about accessorizing the whole thing with a boar’s tail and beating Fergus Henderson at his own game? Not so much cow pie as pig tail pie…

I got the tail at the stall* in Brixton Farmers’ Market for the bargainout price of a pound and couldn’t resist its curly charms, especially since there’s a fair bit of meat on one. You can also get them smoked at the Colombian butcher in Brixton Village.

To fill my pie, I used diced pork leg as I couldn’t stretch to wild boar this time. For a seasonal sensation, I added shallot, leek and some seasonal mushrooms, all sweated off in butter and coated in flour and bathed in Henney’s Herefordshire cider before simmering it all for 40 minutes on a low heat. When it thickened up, I added fresh tarragon, a pinch of mace and a good grind of black pepper. Like all the best pie fillings, it can be prepped in advance and then given a lovely lid when needed.

My lovely lid came courtesy of Jus-Rol. I wanted to do puff pastry and with butter the price it is, I did not feel inclined to experiment. Instead I failed to read the instructions for use properly and ended up having to defrost one sheet in the microwave. This was a bad idea. It ended up brittle and with greasy patches. I had to use the other sheet instead and allow it to come to room temperature naturally. Feeling deflated that I could mess up bought pastry, I turned attention to the tail.

I wanted it to partly inside the pie to cook the meat and allow the bone to infuse the gravy. This is surprisingly difficult. Pig’s tails are incredibly flexible and not especially easy to position. I put the pastry lid on the pie and slit it open to wedge the tail inside. This took longer than I thought and led to an interesting moment where I stopped while holding a floppy tail in one hand and wondered how exactly my life turned out this way…

Eventually with some ingenious overlaid pastry stars holding the tail in place, the pie went in the oven at 220C for about 40 minutes. I peered in after 30 or so and marvelled at how much it really had puffed up. It also smelled tremendous. I boiled some spuds and did some peas to go on the side and rushed to get at it.

The tail had crisped up at the very very end and the meat inside was nicely cooked. It might be better to skin it first as there was quite a lot of slightly flabby skin to wade through, but it was surprisingly tasty to gnaw on and it had added a meaty kick to the pie filling. Pork leg wouldn’t be my first choice of cut usually, but it softened up nicely and was delicious. The cider and tarragon worked well and the pastry was great. I had two helpings straightaway (and forgot the peas both times!)

If you can get hold of a tail or two, try not to be put off by the cute factor. It’s a tasty thing perfect for a bit of stock or to make people’s eyes open wide when you serve this pie. I just wish I’d gone the whole hog and bought a snout in the market too…

*I’m really sorry, but I cannot remember the name of the boar people at all, but they are there every week and super helpful and very friendly.

The Three Fishes

Last week was Mister North’s birthday and an excellent excuse for both of us to eat and drink in style all weekend. After an excellent, but late Saturday night out enjoying Korean food at Baekdu and sampling just a few of the excellent beers on offer at Port Street Beer House in Manchester, we were just ready for a good pub lunch preferably in a location gorgeous enough to do this fabulous weather justice. We didn’t take long to decide on The Three Fishes.

Tucked away in the Ribble Valley not far from Clitheroe and Whalley, this pub prides itself on serving good Lancashire food and drink in a beautiful location and sounded just right for an afternoon out. We decided to err on the side of caution and book a table even though it was a Monday lunchtime and were glad we had when we got stuck behind every driver in the valley out going at 30 miles a hour to drink in the sunny scenery. It also made for the most genuine welcome when we arrived at the pub 10 minutes than planned. Our waitress greeted us like service had been waiting for us and showed us to our table with enthusiasm. Combined with the pint of local Thwaites Wainwright we chose, it was a good start.

The menu is extensive and tempting and we both struggled to narrow our choices down, staring at other tables to see what they were ordering. The platters looked sensational and Mister North was very tempted by the seafood platter until we discovered they were out of the oh-so alluring sounding treacle cured salmon. This almost pleased me as it removed my dilemma and allowed me to go for the Morecambe Bay shrimp as a starter without too much dithering. The fact Mister North chose my other temptation with the baked whitebait, smoked pig’s jowl and a soft hen’s egg was fortituous too.

We didn’t have to wait long before our cheery waitress arrived with the starters, but they were good enough that I’d have waited a while for them. I was served what felt like a pint of shrimp, all glossy and glorious after being kissed by a wave of mace scented butter in their dish. I loved that the waitress brought me a spoon so even after devouring the English muffin, I wouldn’t miss a drop of that beautiful shrimpy butter. I barely noticed Mister North’s reactions as I supped my shrimp, but the morsel I sampled made me briefly envious. Soft sparkling fresh whitebait, unencumbered by batter, married beautifully with the smoky salty chewy pig’s jowl and reminded me again that pork and seafood together can barely be bettered and this was a particularly good example of it.

Excited for the mains after the great starters, I was glad there was a little bit of a pause while I recovered from my buttering up, but I was still thrilled to see my Pie Top with caramelised onions, braised ox cheek and kidneys arrive, especially when I realised it was accompanied by the same dripping cooked chips that made Mister North’s fancy scampi and squid in a basket sound so alluring, preventing us from reverting to childhood squabbling in public…

In fact there was silence at the table as we got stuck in. My ox cheek was properly unctuous, melting in the mouth after the merest prod of the fork. The disc of gleaming puff pastry soaked up some serious good gravy and the onions really added a sweet base note that made the dish. The kidneys though, weren’t as good as the ones I cooked recently, and were a tad powdery for my still offal sensitive tendencies. I’m not sure if it was the texture of the kidneys lingering, but I also found the chips a little bit claggy as if the dripping hadn’t quite been hot enough, but considering how light and lovely the batter on Mister North’s squid and scampi was, I think the issue might have been with me.

He dispatched his fritto misto and chips in record time, commenting several times on how fresh the seafood was and how light it seemed considering that it was all deep fried. I found my dish much heavier and struggled to finish the chips, but refused to waste even a drop of that gravy! We both wanted to sample the famed length of Lancashire Cheese, but were simply too full to even remotely do it justice. I’d have been tempted to go for a long walk so I could come back for it afterwards, but instead we decided to finish up rather than linger and be tempted to drink more at lunchtime. If we’d had more time, I’d have enjoyed sampling the rather good gin list, including the Chase Gin I’m keen to try, especially since it was sunny enough to sit out with a G&T.

We settled the bill and despite the fact Mister North was paying for his own birthday treat, he seemed to find it reasonable at under £50 for the two of us with a drink. Service was genuinely friendly and very easy. We neither felt rushed for coming almost as lunch ended or forced to sit on waiting around for things because they were clearing up. The whole dining room was pleasantly busy with a few other birthday lunches, kids and people enjoying themselves over a drink and I liked the atmosphere immensely. In a valley crammed with pubs and places to eat, there’s a reason that the Three Fishes is so popular. They’ve cracked gastropub food while keeping the pub vibe and welcoming everyone. It’s a local gem. I only wish it were more local to me…

Give thanks for pumpkin pie

I am rather envious of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. I rather like the idea of a day dedicated to family, friends and food (all things to be thankful for) without the added pressure of sheer naked commercialism like Christmas. Unfortunately I have never had the chance to celebrate Thanksgiving and thus have never sampled some of its traditional dishes. I could happily live without ever trying green bean casserole but since I’m a bit of an Americanophile, pumpkin pie has always intrigued me.

Coming across a can of Libby’s tinned pumpkin recently at Whole Foods for a much more reasonable price than Selfridges Food Hall flogs it for sealed the deal. This is one occasion when tinned trumps fresh for me. I roasted some pumpkin last year to puree for cupcakes and it involved an hour’s cooking, draining overnight, about two hours trying to puree it in a blender and the death of my favourite silicon spatula to achieve something that looked exactly like the contents of a can of Libby’s…

The future's orange...

Pumpkin obtained, the next step was to find a good recipe for the pie. I was intrigued to see that most of them are the same recipe but with varying amounts of the products sold by specific companies and different levels of spicing. The only one that seemed to vary was a stunning sounding Nancy Silverton recipe involving real cream and brandy instead evaporated milk and generic pumpkin pie spice. However it sounded like all the ingredients involved would cost so much it would have been cheaper to buy one of the £9.99 pies that Whole Foods also had. I ended up plumping for the ‘perfect pumpkin pie’ recipe from the Guardian recently as it seemed to combine the best bits of the traditional and the more deluxe Nancy Silverton recipes.

Oddly though I struggled to find a small bottle of golden rum anywhere in Brixton. I couldn’t even get a couple of miniatures of the dark stuff. Apparently SW9 only deals in flagons of the stuff, so I left that out since I’m not sure I could manage to use of the rest of a bottle by next November. I also had problems with getting real maple syrup that didn’t cost enough to make my bank manager blink and ended up with a bottle of the maple flavoured syrup instead. Everything else was straighforward.

As was the pastry for the pie shell! A quick sweet shortcrust, it came together and rolled out easily. I did forget to make sure it covered the sides completely all round the dish though and didn’t notice until it was too late that I had a bit of a bald patch in one area. After chilling it, I blind baked it for around 25 minutes in total, ending up with a golden brown crust that had come away from the edges nicely. I had originally intended to go all out American and use graham crackers as the crust, but I was glad I hadn’t bothered.

Blind baked

I actually left it to cool overnight, preparing the filling the next day. This was also incredibly easy and basically involved stirring all the wet ingredients together before pouring into the crust. I wish I’d double checked the amount of evaporated milk needed as a small tin would have sufficed and I wouldn’t be wondering what to do with the leftovers.

Ready to bake

I sprinkled the filling with some freshly grated nutmeg and then the filled shell went in the oven at 180˚C and cooked for around 40 minutes. Once glossy and set with a slight wobble to the filling, it came out and I marvelled at how incredibly stupidly easy making a pumpkin pie is. I’d always imagined it would be a complicated affair, but if I hadn’t set myself more things to bake before people came round, I could have had time to put my feet up and read the papers from cover to cover.

Set, go...

I allowed it to cool well before serving to make sure it was properly set. You can serve it with cream or ice cream and I also happen to think creme fraiche would be delicious. Unlike most American recipes I’ve used, it wasn’t at all overly sweet with just a hint of sugar in the deliciously short and crumbly pastry. The filling was sweetened primarily by the pumpkin itself with a warm note from the syrup. A little bit like a sweet quiche, it had a distinctly vegetable-y tang and was rich with spice. I had added larger amounts of spice than recommended (by about double), including a pinch of mace and I’m glad I did as it could have been quite bland without it.

Even a previous pumpkin pie sceptic enjoyed this and there was barely any left at the end of the afternoon with a even native New Yorker complimenting it. It was super easy to make, and well worth the extra effort of blind baking the shell, looking far more impressive than the work involved suggested it should and very tasty. So while it was much more of a success than my previous dalliance with American classics, I’m still not sure I’ll be adding it to my autumnal repetoire. I think I prefer my pumpkins savoury after all!