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Archive for the ‘Food and Drink’ Category

I have a theory that your typical traveller – inspired by the notion of a particular destination – researches the places they want to visit and later establishes the pragmatics of transport, accommodation and sustenance. Alternatively you could decide where you want to eat and then fit sight-seeing and travel into the gaps between meals. Guess which demographic I fall into…

Here then is a gastronomic journey through a day in Romania

Breakfast

In Romania on no account start as you mean to go on. You’ll see why later. Fruit makes a great start to the day in a country that produces an abundance of superb fresh produce. What could be better than awaking to cherries, apricots and strawberries?

Fridge fresh fruit

Fridge fresh fruit

Of course these have been freshly sourced from the food market in Brasov. Unlike some of the sanitised beardy middle class food markets I’ve encountered in London this is an honest traditional affair where sun-weathered farmers and growers sell their own produce to people of all standings.

Early season strawberries

Early season strawberries

I’m struck by the powerful sweet aroma of fresh fruit and wonder quite what British supermarkets do to so thoroughly sterilise natures work. Back at the ranch this all goes down so well with glass of buttermilk. Which lends the question – why, Why, WHY is buttermilk almost impossible to find in the UK when it is ubiquitous in mainland Europe?

Second Breakfast

Well, the first breakfast was just a taster after all. The sight and smell of home made sausages served with a mild sweet mustard and feisty green chilli remind me of visits to Prague, Germany and Austria.

Fabulous meat fingers

Fabulous meat fingers

They taste different however – a little more rustic perhaps, with a heavy infusion of herbs. I’m ready to start the day after this.

Elevenses

The life of a traveller can be exhausting. Not that I’m complaining about the lay-on in bed or prospect of a workless day but by the time one has dawdled through the pretty sun drenched side streets of Brasov a few pangs of hunger inevitably surface. Fortunately the city abounds with fresh baked produce. Kiosks serve a local speciality called Covrigi, mini pretzels topped variously with poppy seeds, mixed seeds, honey and nuts or even apple.

Cheese pastries

Cheese pastries

It’s the bakeries that so impress me, reminiscent in some ways of the truly mind blowing independent bakeries to be found all over Vienna. There appears to be a more limited choice when compared to their Austrian counterparts but simplicity of choice and freshness of ingredients always wins and these salty cheese pastries just need to be eaten. As do the sour cheese pastries. And the apple pastries…

Lunch

One of the joys of this part of the world (or most of Europe minus the UK) is the tradition of alfresco dining. With the midday sun beating down any number of parasol shaded café tables promise relaxation, people watching and the kind of food that speaks very well of a nation.

Bread of heaven

Bread of heaven

Pork rib stew served in a bread bowl raises baseless concerns of practicality. The walls hold, and what they hold is quite delicious. Yes you have to use your fingers with the submerged ribs but often it’s the messy food that plants the biggest smile on your face.

Making me Hungary

Making me Hungary

Soup is another stand-out choice. This Hungarian bean soup may have been poured from across the border but it’s authentic regional fare when you consider the commonality of ingredients not to mention some shared heritage, forged throughout various occupations. Pictures don’t do this soup justice. The intense brew of slow cooked richness is deeply satisfying and moreish, if not moorish.

On the theme of soup here’s something I simply had to try!

Carp broth with polenta

Carp broth with polenta

I can’t recall seeing Carp on any English menu but it’s widely available here. What a flavoursome fish, firm and heavy boned. Served in the broth it was cooked in this is a unique and memorable treat.

Perfectly pickled peppers

Perfectly pickled peppers

The stereotype of pickled vegetables in eastern Europe is justified and a day here would not be complete without some form of preserved accompaniment. The peppers are sweet, gherkins sour and the oddly pink cauliflower quite a revelation. I’ve long struggled with cauli as the English default of cauli with cheese sauce has worn thin for me and I’m never quite sure what else to do with it. Now I have the answer.

Afternoon Snacks

After lunch a stroll of the old town is in order. The square is lined with shops and cafes but my gaze is constantly drawn back to the mountains above, verdant and fresh at this time of year but snow lined during the skiing season. There is a real outdoors feel about this special place and that always triggers my appetite.

Ooh, free samples!

Ooh, free samples!

Brasov food hall is a dingy affair but a flying visit has its rewards. Cheese samples await the passing shopper and the ones I try are softer and sourer than the average English cheese but nothing short of yummy.

Too much choice

Too much choice

If cheese is an everyday food here then meat is an every meal food. This typical meat stall is nothing short of overwhelming in choice. Truly I wouldn’t know what to ask for and given that my Romanian linguistic skills extend only to Da (yes) and Bufnita (Owl) I doubt that a conversation would go well. Unless I wanted a fillet of Owl.

Nothing purchased on this occasion but back out in the open you are never far from another food retail opportunity.

Soft, hard, smoked or wrapped in bark

Soft, hard, smoked or wrapped in bark

This wholesome stall sold a typical array of sheep cheese and harder smoked cheese. The rounds on the right of the picture have been left to mature in tree bark. Wowsers!

Tiffin

If you think I’m a little unfair on my native country from time to time it’s because travel is about new experiences and they will inevitably be in relation to the ones I’m used to at home. If there’s one pioneering achievement that the British can proudly trumpet in these post colonial times it’s the invention of tiffin in 1782 by Vice Admiral Ralph Fortesque. I would never advocate the invasion of a country, subjugation of its people and ransacking of its natural resources, but the legacy of tiffin in former outposts like India and the Caribbean surely redresses the balance somewhat.

Chimney cake!!

Chimney cake!!

Whether my attempts to verbally procure tiffin failed because the Romanians have no concept of it, or whether it’s because the words Yes and Owl are insufficient for such a dialogue I cannot say. What I do know is that the local speciality of Kurtos Kalacs (Chimney Cake) makes for a worthy alternative. A light pastry mix is poured over a cylinder and rotated over a heat source before being sprinkled with a coating of sweet nut and sugar goodness. Lordy, I can get used to tearing pieces off and nibbling them with the excellent coffee you find in these parts.

Tiny fruit, big flavour

Tiny fruit, big flavour

Conscious of the need to create some space before the evening meal a short walk into the hills is just what is needed. Besides there are no edible temptations here in this unspoiled wilderness. Apart from the pea sized mountain strawberries hand picked and sold by a gypsy lady. Do try these if you ever see them – packed with flavour and pretty as you like.

Dinner

A may evening in Brasov is to be experienced. The falling sun casts the mountains and stylish old pre-communist villas into a dramatic light while the heat drops down a notch to a very comfortable temperature. Showered and changed my mood is lifted by the prospect of leisurely grazing in some attractive open-air restaurant. And you know, I feel like I deserve it…

Starters

I have always adored taramasalata. It’s a dish that I have always associated with Greece or Turkey and one that I expect to be rustic. Tonight’s eatery serves up an exquisite interpretation of taramasalata, fine and creamy. It’s delicious and consumed with the ever-present bowl of bread that seems to neither fill or disagree with you unlike the bread I typically encounter at home.

I could sleep in this

I could sleep in this

The soup is back! I love soup. Especially here where there is such a rich palette of choices. Besides, how could you possible say no to a tripe soup with sour cream? Fabulous! Really!

Tripe soup - good for hangovers apparently!

Tripe soup – good for hangovers apparently!

I’m experiencing so much eye-opening new food, none more-so than the following speciality that, on the face of it, is bonkers mad. Soft pork fat served with red onions. Hear me out…

A million miles from port scratchings

A million miles from port scratchings

This is what you do. Take a bite of the pork fat. Enjoy it much more than you expected and start worrying that further consumption may shorten your life. Nibble a little bread. Sprinkle salt on the red onions, bite and chew. Be surprised that this tastes really good after the pork fat and bread. Take a swig of the palinka spirit to cleanse your palette and ignite your circulatory system.

All washed down with palinka

All washed down with palinka

Repeat. Enjoy. Try to understand why this just works so well. Fail. Resign yourself to confused happiness.

Mains

Meat. The country seems to run on it. There’s most probably a meat dessert if you know where to look. A platter provides a great way to sample different types without feeling too greedy. Not that I could ever be accused of being greedy of course.

Meat fest

Meat fest

Steak, liver, sausages. Lovely. Why wouldn’t you? The liver in particular was a delight because this is an old English classic that has been routinely abused with overcooking and latterly consigned to the prawn cocktail cupboard of bad 70s food. Done simply and with respect this remains a star attraction and I’m inspired to visit it afresh next time I’m planning to cook.

Royal eggs

Royal eggs

It’s not all meat of course but neither is it surprising that the vegetables are pickled. By the way, have you tried pickled watermelon? You really should. I found it a little challenging but I’m glad to have taken the challenge. Creamy polenta – apparently the secret is sour cream – topped with a fried egg with such a dark yolk that it must have been laid by chicken royalty. Great ingredients, uncomplicated cooking with a simple elegance.

Desserts

My heraldic title of #DukeOfPuddingshire may have been unknown here when first I arrived but needless to say my reputation soon spread. Indeed by the end of the 6 day visit my status at the tiny back-street patisserie near to my apartment escalated from stranger to regular cake pest through to notorious scoffer. They even made me a special cake on my last day (this is true).

Plum dumpling goodness

Plum dumpling goodness

Tonight in this more formal setting I have no choice but to evaluate the plumb dumplings. I first encountered these in Vienna and have subsequently made them although it’s trickier at home where there is not the same predictable supply chain of high quality bread crumbs. These are a little on the heavy side but good all the same. Perhaps better suited to the bitterly cold winter nights.

Mystery pud - I love you

Mystery pud – I love you

Given today’s “busy schedule” I can only manage one additional dessert and this one is very traditional. It’s called, actually I’m not sure what it’s called. Anyway, it is comprised of, erm, you know I couldn’t tell you. It has cream on top. It seems to have been imbued with some form of spirit. It is divine! Make it and see for yourself.

Drinks

I mentioned the palinka but did I tell you that it is typically 50% proof or higher? Served chilled as an aperitif this fruit brandy is the only way to start an evening meal here, unless you opt for the slightly weaker Tuica plum spirit which tends to weigh in at a more conventional 40%.

There is also a Romanian wine industry. Though not world leading if you choose well you will not be disappointed. I tried red and white varieties and really enjoyed their smooth enjoyable finish. Relatively simple and drinkable without being plain.

Beer of the bears

Beer of the bears

Although global breweries have taken over traditional local beer producers there remain some local brews and they tend to be your clear lagers with an enjoyable malty finish. Truth is I would rarely consider drinking a gassy or bland lager in Britain but the ones brewed here are tasty and pure by comparison. Salut!

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I stepped off the plane which isn’t surprising given the UK media’s right wing obsessive tarring of the EU. They are constantly telling us that under EU rules British growers will be forced to only sell straight bananas, that spotted dick is to be outlawed and Belgian waffles are to be made compulsory with all meals. You should take all of this rhetoric with a pinch of salt, some red onion and palinka.

I seem to have developed a taste for Romania.

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Foodie that I am nothing says Christmas to me like Gingerbread men. At least I can’t remember the last time I didn’t make gingerbread at Christmas, and this year is no different.

This isn’t really a blog about how to make gingerbread as there are a thousand simple recipes out there but it’s more a journal of my happy seasonal routine. The recipe differs each year with the general trend towards more ginger (I love ginger!) but the only essential ingredients are fun and silliness! Oh, and a couple of special tips…

Ingredients
400g plain flour
4 tbsp golden syrup
4 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150g butter
200g soft brown sugar
1 egg
1 apple
Optional food colouring
Icing sugar (some)
Lemon juice (some)
Fun (lots)
Silliness (lots)

Syrup maketh the man

Syrup maketh the man

Instructions

Made to a soundtrack of whatever music gets you in the mood…

1) Pour the flour, butter, bicarb, cinnamon and ginger into a mixer.

Trusty old Kenwood

Trusty old Kenwood

2) Whiz until you get a breadcrumby texture

Vaguely festive

Vaguely festive

3) Add the sugar and then, with the mixer turned on, drip the egg and syrup into the mixer

Getting distinctly Christmassy

Getting distinctly Christmassy

4) You’re going to end up with a firmish dough that needs to be wrapped up in clingfilm and refrigerated for a while.

A rare gingerbread flower

A rare gingerbread flower

5) Roll the chilled dough out on a floured board or work surface until it’s around half a centimetre thick

You gotta roll with it

You gotta roll with it

6) Now get to work with your cutters! This is a whole load of fun. Of course there’s no reason why you have to stick to gingerbread men. I have accumulated a great range of cutters including Christmassy ones, animals and gingerdead men.

Im gonna make you a star

Im gonna make you a star

7) Place your shapes onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper.

Baker street

Baker street

8) Throw in the oven until golden brown – around 10+ minutes. If in doubt remove earlier than later and bear in mind that your gingerbread will firm up after it’s removed from the oven. You’ll probably have to bake 2 or 3 rounds of these.

Golden brown

Golden brown

9) Once the gingerbread has cooled on a wire rack it’s best to store it for a while in a sealed container. OK, here’s special tip number 1: Add some sliced apple to the container with the cut face not touching any of the goodies. This Tyrolean grandmother inspired step will ensure the biscuits stay soft and take on a festive apple flavour.

Rhinestone cowboy

Rhinestone cowboy

10) If you are icing your creations then I would leave this until nearer the time of consumption. Here’s special tip number 2: Drip a little lemon juice into a bowl and mix in your icing sugar. This tastes infinitely better than water based icing. Now get creative…

Bear faced

Bear faced

11) I used icing modestly because I didn’t want to overpower the gingerbread but you can do what you want. Food colouring presents more possibilities and I was miffed to discover I was out of red, so no nose for Rudolph.

Pigs are for Christmas too

Pigs are for Christmas too

There’s no end to the fun you can have with gingerbread. It’s a seasonal affair in terms of ingredients but also in folklore and makes a great Christmas gift. Perhaps you can compose a festive scene?

Into the woods

Into the woods

Big kid? Me?!

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Autumn. Bright golden leaves tumbling from the trees to form a wondrously thick carpet that crackles under foot as November’s low golden sun beats warmly upon your exposed face.

…roll on 24 hours…

Soggy masses of rotten leaves blocking my gutters that I messily scoop into a bucket while perched precariously atop a ladder in the freezing damp greyness that will block out all light, warmth and joy until some time next year.

Autumn at its best

Autumn at its best

The earlier part of Autumn may be with us all too fleetingly but as the alchemy outdoors dilutes into memory we can at least retire to the kitchen to enjoy the comforting fruits of the season. On Sunday, after cleaning out the gutters and in need of a seasonal pick-me-up, I made a thick moreish spicy parsnip soup with colombo powder – so good! This day was made for cooking and eating so needless to say my pudding whiskers were aroused, but how do you follow this without straying from the season?

The strangest thing. I had this craving for pumpkin pie – something I have never previously consumed let alone made. Where did this flash of inspiration come from?

I cobbled together three different recipes to come up with my take on pumpkin and pecan pie. Only later did I deduce the origins of this craving. All will be explained after the recipe…

Ingredients
1 butternut squash
3 eggs
Pecans – let’s say 100g
100ml double cream
Sugar
250g plain flour
100g butter at room temperature
Ground ginger
Ground allspice
Vanilla essence
Nutmeg

Unlikely bedfellows

Unlikely bedfellows

Instructions

Make the pastry – or buy it if you are a cheat
1) Cream the butter and around 70g of sugar with a hand blender. As usual I had forgotten to remove the butter from the fridge so the microwave came to the rescue.

Thats a meal right there

Thats a meal right there

2) Add an egg and blend that into the mix.

Just in case you need to see what this looks like

Just in case you need to see what this looks like

3) Pastry recipes always talk about sieving in the flour at this point. I’ve never seen the point in creating the extra washing up so DUMP the flour into the bowl and then mix it with a spatula. Once a dough is formed work it with your hands adding a little water if it’s too firm. Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Doh!

Doh!

Prepare the squash

4) Halve the squash, remove the seeds and score the flesh with a knife and microwave for around 8 minutes.

Microwave? What kind of recipe is this?

Microwave? What kind of recipe is this?

5) The texture should be soft. Pour off any liquid and leave to cool. My squash tasted so rich and sweet at this point – it bodes well.

Sweet

Sweet

Caramelise the nuts

6) Pour a couple of tablespoons of sugar into a pan and gently heat until melted. I added a few drops of water to accelerate the process.

Caramel goodness

Caramel goodness

7) Chops the pecans roughly in half

Ready for the chop

Ready for the chop

8) Add half a teaspoon of ground ginger to the melted sugar and then scatter the pecans into the pan. Stir until coated and then leave to cool.

Dark temptation

Dark temptation

Blind bake the pastry case

9) Remove the pastry dough from the fridge and roll out to a circle wide enough to comfortably line your dish. My dish was 24cm in diameter so I rolled the pastry to around 30cm diameter.

Rolling along nicely

Rolling along nicely

10) Tuck the pastry into the dish and press it against the sides before prodding the base with a fork. Now overlay some baking paper and weight down. You can buy baking beads but I always use dried beans which work perfectly.

Blind baking

Blind baking

11) Bake for around 25 minutes at 180 degrees

In need of a filling

In need of a filling

Bring it all together

12) We have done all the hard work so now it’s just a case of assembly and cooking. Scrape the squash away from the skin and mash it in a bowl.

Squash the squash

Squash the squash

13) Add one whisked egg plus the yolk of another. I added 30g of grated jaggery instead of refined sugar because I felt the flavour would be well suited to this recipe. Finally I added a little vanilla essence, half a teaspoon of ground allspice and half a teaspoon of ground ginger. Mix

All the good things

All the good things

14) Scatter the caramelised pecans over the pastry base.

Good foundations

Good foundations

15) Pour the filling into the base and grate over some nutmeg

Ready, stead, bake!

Ready, stead, bake!

16) Bake for around 40 minutes at 180 degrees until firmish. Admire the results.

Good night Jim Bob

Good night Jim Bob

Enjoy with some maple syrup and Greek yoghurt. This looks and tastes of autumn!

They say that smell and taste are strong memory triggers. Shortly after demolishing the first slice of pie my subconscious decided to let me into its secret. This is how pumpkin pie had flashed into my mind…

Having made spicy parsnip soup with colombo curry powder it reminded me that I had recently flicked through the TV channels and settled upon an episode of Columbo called “A stitch in crime”. The only reason I watched awhile was because there was Will Geer sat up in a hospital bed and I it couldn’t remember where I knew him from – until I recognised him as Grandpa Walton. The Waltons epitomised wholesome country living and I recall watching an episode (it must have been years ago) in which pumpkins were being prepared. I’ve now googled it and sure enough a giant pumpkin features in a thanksgiving episode.

Nothing says autumn (or Fall) like pumpkin pie on Walton Mountain. And that my friends is a fleeting glimpse into the workings of my mind.

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A little over four years ago I wrote my first blog article. In a victory for quantity over quality I concluded my 149th publication last month with a review of my Cleveland Way experience and thoughts have since turned to an appropriate subject for my 150th blog. Since my return from Yorkshire there have been no adventures. I seem to have spent a lot of time pre-occupied with domestic affairs and I’m not inspired to write about the re-felting of my shed roof despite the fact that two of my heroes – John Shuttleworth and Arnold Rimmer – would approve of this.

The slide-show you could have had...

The slide-show you could have had…

Instead I’m going to bow to the seasons and write about one of the ways in which I have tried to put to good use the glut of fine fruit harvested this autumn. My own plum tree may have remained fallow this year but thanks to several donations I have made plum slice, plum and port jam, baked plums with star anise and latterly the Viennese Plum Cake described below. You can never have too many plums…

Ingredients
Instant yeast sachet
100g granulated sugar
175ml full fat milk
350g strong white flour
1 large egg, separated into yolk and white
1 lemon
60g salted butter
300g plums
Icing sugar
Plum jam (optional)

Sugar and icing and all things nicing

Sugar and icing and all things nicing

Instructions

1) Wash and quarter the plums, removing the stones. Then get the yeast started by dissolving a teaspoon of sugar in warm water, adding the yeast.
And leaving awhile to froth up.

All rise

All rise

2) Zest the lemon. I use a zester which is another of those kitchen gadgets rarely used but priceless when you need it. There are few smells more evocative than that of freshly zested lemon.

The simple joys of zesting

The simple joys of zesting

3) Warm the milk slightly and add to the yeast. Put the flour, sugar, lemon zest, egg yolk into a bowl.

Even my new camera can't make this bit exciting

Even my new camera can’t make this bit exciting

4) Gradually pour the yeast liquid into the flour bowl and mix well will with a wooden spoon. Keep working the mix with the spoon – it should develop into a doughy consistency that doesn’t stick too much to the bowl sides. Add a little more flour if the mix is too wet. Cover the dough with a tea-towel and leave to rise in a warm place for an hour or so.

You could just stop here and eat the dough

You could just stop here and eat the dough

5) Line a baking tray (approx 35 x 25cm) with baking paper. For some geeky reason I always enjoy this bit. I flip the tray upside down, place the paper over the base, fold over the edges and then use scissors to snip each corner. Now work approx three quarters of the risen dough into the tin.

Every cake has a paper lining

Every cake has a paper lining

6) Now – optionally – heat up some plum jam and brush it generously over the doughy base. I think it’s better this way but then I do have plenty of plum jam kicking around. Next arrange the plum segments on top of the base. At this point it should all start to make sense!

Plumtastic!

Plumtastic!

7) Next another fun step – create a dough lattice. Roll the remaining dough into a long string around 1.5cm in thickness. Lay it over the plums into a lattice. You could be more creative if you wish and lay it into spirals or perhaps reproduce a Matisse pencil portrait, but nobody loves a smart arse. Brush the exposed dough with the egg white and leave the tray somewhere warm for another 20 or so minutes of rising again.

My interpretation of Gauguins Clôture de jardin

My interpretation of Gauguins Clôture de jardin

8) Heat the oven to 190 degrees and bake for around 35 minutes. As with all baking keep an eye on proceedings and be prepared to alter the temperature or cooking time depending on progress. My cake was perfectly cooked albeit a little darker than I would have liked on top. Once cooked shake some icing sugar over and leave to cool.

The icing on the cake

The icing on the cake

9) Slice the cake, make a cup of tea and invite the vicar or for authenticity serve to an Austrian pfarrer with a cup of fresh coffee and a glass of tap water on the side. Close your eyes, bite into the zwetschkengermfleck and dream of Café Drechsler. A suitable way to mark my 150th blog I think!

Happy 150th blogday

Happy 150th blogday

This recipe was originally billed as a cake and while I may have modestly tweaked it the outcome was more bread-like in my opinion. This is not a criticism – the proof of the pudding is in the eating after all and the sight and taste of this simple cake/bread takes me back to Vienna. I have vowed to return one day but until then there’s always Viennese cookery from the comfort of my kitchen.

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A modern dilemma: How to indulge in fruit and vegetables while ensuring you still consume 5 portions of cake each day. I have an answer. Actually Nigel Slater has an answer – I’m just a scoffing minion.

Wanting to bake a goodbye cake for work (I’m leaving) while using up surplus veg I turned to the internet for creative solutions and up popped Nigel Slater’s Courgette Cake. Of all the celebrity chefs NS is probably the one whose fridge I would raid given the choice in some supermarket sweep style free-for-all. That I just imagined. He’s one of my food heroes because he is a simple and unpretentious foodie, grounded in the seasons and passionate about ingredients. His recipes strike me as inspirational and yet accessible. So courgette cake it is, rather than Jamie’s turnip pudding or Nigella’s sprout cup cakes

I tweaked the recipe slightly. Here are the ingredients I used

Ingredients

275g butter
275g caster sugar
2 large free range eggs
250g courgette
1 apple
275g plain flour
½ tsp Salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
100g pecans
120g sultanas
4tbsp greek yoghurt

What's in the mix

What’s in the mix

Instructions

1) Cream the sugar and butter until smooth. The butter needs to be room temperature for this – I cheated and blasted it in a microwave for 10 seconds.

The unhealthy bit

The unhealthy bit

2) Add the eggs and blend them into the mixture. NS says to do this one by one, which I did, but I’m not sure why you can’t do them at the same time. Chefs say these sorts of things. Delia would find a contrived way to take twice as long and create three times as much washing up, while Heston would doubtless involve dry ice at this point.

Free range cake

Free range cake

3) Coarsely grate the courgette and the apple.

If it feels wrong keep the faith...

If it feels wrong keep the faith…

You will need to squeeze as much liquid as possible from the grated mass in order not to waterlog the cake.

That's 2 of your 5

That’s 2 of your 5

Now work the courgette & apple into the mix

Yes, you have just added courgette to your cake mix

Yes, you have just added courgette to your cake mix

4) Add the flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon. Blend together using an electric whisk. I added some Greek yoghurt at this point because I felt that the mixture was a little too dry but whenever you are working with flour you have to make a hand-on decision about the addition of liquids.

Add the dry to the wet

Add the dry to the wet

5) Now stir in the pecans and sultanas, being not quite careful enough to ensure that ALL of the pecans go into the mix and not your face.

I had forgotten how nice Pecans are!

I had forgotten how nice Pecans are!

6) Spoon and level the mixture into a greased, lined baking tin OR just use a flexible baking mould.
I was wondering recently why baking paper seems to have vanished from the supermarket shelves – at least from Aldi, Lidl, Sainsburies (begrudgingly) and the local stores that I use. Somebody suggested that the rising popularity of silicone moulds may have reduced demand for baking parchment. It’s a good theory, although I still find this a pain. Turns out that Wilko’s still stock it.

It never looks good at this point

It never looks good at this point

7) Bake for until golden and firmish. For me this was around 55 minutes. Allow to cool before you get busy with a knife. Otherwise it’s all going to fall apart (I have been impatient far too many times at this point)

What a difference an hour makes

What a difference an hour makes

8) Sample – for quality purposes. Hey – this is really nice! Decide whether your work colleague deserve this. Then remember last week’s office medical checks which revealed a wide range of serious albeit sometimes amusing health problems amongst my office pals.

Turns out you can have your cake and eat it

Turns out you can have your cake and eat it

This cake isn’t going to solve anybodies dietary issues. But I hope it might just divert a few troubled minds away from the burdensome worries of physical health. Cake – at least good cake – is health food for the soul.

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2012 was a great year for extending my travel horizons. It was the year I discovered that Wales can be wonderful without being wet. It was the year I finally made it to beautiful Durham. It was the year I fell for the medieval charms of Maastricht and broke my previous record for putting up with Brussels (4 hours) – and even that dirty old city had some pleasant surprises. Several trips to gothic Edinburgh only left me wanting more while the grand imperial charms of Vienna elicited three blog entries from me and would have provided the highlight in any other year. Except that my encounter with South Tyrol scaled new heights literally and metaphorically.

This way to the Alps...

This way to the Alps…

I had planned to write 4 or 5 pieces on this action packed visit to my partner Carmen’s homeland but I just don’t seem to have much time nowadays and there’s so much to tell. I left a piece of my heart in South Tyrol (which is a worry because I’m off to San Francisco this year and I’m going to end up heartless at this rate) and that’s not just due to the mind blowing scenery…

View from Carmen's back garden!

View from Carmen’s back garden!

…the region is a foodie’s heaven, bringing together hearty Austrian style mountain food with exquisite fresh Italian cuisine. There is no reactionary food movement taking off here because people never stopped buying fresh local produce. Eating remains a family affair for the most part where meals are prepared from raw ingredients and there’s not a ready meal in sight. Which is why my Christmas present was such a joy to unwrap!

Südtirol hamper of joy

Südtirol hamper of joy

One seasonally damp and dark Derby evening was usurped by fresh Alpine snow tipped mountains and green pastures echoing to the sound of cowbells across the valley as I opened a hamper from the entirely wonderful H&H Südtirol online food shop! Stocked with the finest ingredients we set about preparing a Tyrolean festive feast. That’s to say she came up with a dozen recipes from the top of her head, and I followed instructions while appreciating some of the pure beers from the Forst brewery. It’s a partnership after all.

In the continental tradition we celebrated Christmas on December 24th with smoked trout, Russian salad and the opening of presents but with my parents visiting on the 25th we pulled together something a little different from Turkey and Christmas pud. Here’s what we cooked, to a streaming radio soundtrack provided by AlpenMelodie

Starter: Poached Salmon Roulade

We created a “pastry” mix by layering a mixture of eggs, spinach, a little semolina (1) and, baking until set (2), smoothing on a paste of poached salmon and ricotta (3) and rolling it up (4).

(1) Pastry Mix (1) Pastry Mix (2) Baked base (2) Baked base
(3) Apply paste (3) Apply paste (4) Roll it up (4) Roll it up

Slice, garnish and serve. This starter was – stunning.

A great starter

A great starter

Main Course: Sauerbraten with Serviettenknödel

With a traditional Xmas walk scheduled for the morning we wanted a main course that could be prepared partially in advance. I started it 10 days in advance by marinating 2kg of topside beef in red wine with herbs (Sauerbraten = “sour roast”). This was in fact upstaged by a decidedly Viennese Serviettenknödel which is a dumpling steamed within a napkin.

Serviettenknödel

Serviettenknödel

The primary constituent is diced dry bread but eggs, milk, crispy lardons, parsley and chives make this a proper moreish winter accompaniment to the beef. It all came together nicely.

More than just beef & dumplings

More than just beef & dumplings

Dessert: Apfelstrudel

Obviously in my household the savoury courses are merely a pre-amble to the main event – dessert. We have a shared love of puddings – Carmen’s family have a tradition of Alibi Starters (eg: soup) followed by “Sweet Mains” (such as gorgeous fluffy rice pudding). For the special day we made Apfelstrudel by mixing sliced apples with pine nuts, ground hazelnuts, cloves, cinnamon and a splash of rum, wrapping it all in filo pastry and then baking.

It looks more enticing when cooked - honest!

It looks more enticing when cooked – honest!

I had made a rather lovely Advocaat ice cream in advance, and it went well with the strudel. In fact so well that we scoffed it without taking any photos. But all in all our Tyrolean themed Christmas meal was a success and it made a refreshing change from the traditional English meal.

Dinner is served

Dinner is served

The only major departure from the Tyrolean theme was Christmas Crackers. Can you believe that the rest of Europe doesn’t do this?! Odd people…

Of course, Christmas isn’t just about eating. It’s also a time for giving. We extended our festive theme by making a selection of Austro/Tyrolean food goodies as family gifts. Hmmm, that’s more food isn’t it…

In previous years I made Cantuccini, Florentines and Lebkuchen for my family. This year we made a superior Lebkuchen inspired by the remarkable culinary skills of Carmen’s grandmother. These may look run of the mill but there’s some magic going on.

...magic ingredients...

…magic ingredients…

We made them a couple of weeks in advance and stored them in airtight containers with apple quarters. The magic in this process is that the lebkuchen absorb the apple essence and stay moist. Then we brushed on icing made using lemon juice rather than water. This is transformational – try it and you will never use water again.

Next we made traditional Vanillekipferl (Almond Crescents). These are simple enough for the most part. We made a sweet dough consisting of more almonds than flour…

Puffin crushed nuts

Puffin crushed nuts

…but there are a couple of surprisingly tricky techniques to master. First you need to persuade your puffin to crush the almonds to the right size (not too large but not a powder) and then you need to roll out the dough into 10cm lengths and twist them into horseshoes without any breakage. Once baked you apply a dusting of icing sugar.

Done...Done… ...and dusted…and dusted

Spitzbuben (translation: Cheeky Boys) are a firm festive family favourite according to Carmen and they are eagerly consumed beyond the Tyrol region in Bavaria, Switzerland and (curiously) Derby. They may loosely resemble Jammy Dodgers but biscuit architecture aside there is no comparison. JDs are cheap mass-produced nonsense while Cheeky Boys are hand made with quality ingredients and no small degree of love.

A sweet biscuit dough is rolled flat and then cut into an equal number of solid circular bases and decorative perforated covers using a special tool.

Not cheeky yetNot cheeky yet Getting a bit cheekyGetting a bit cheeky
Once baked a thin layer of high quality warm jam (ie: with a high fruit content) is applied to the base and the cover is placed on top. Ooh, cheeky!Ooh, cheeky!
We are the cheeky boys!We are the cheeky boys! The Cheeky Boys and Almond Crescents will happily keep for weeks. Except of course, they won’t.

I could quite happily live off these wonderful treats. Yes, I’m sure. That would be fine right? Actually it wouldn’t. Controversial new research suggests that a daily consumption of biscuits alone does not provide all of the nutrients required in a balanced diet. The good news is that the final treat that we made would suitably address this nutritional imbalance.

C'est une pan au chocolateC’est une pan au chocolate

An almond in every biteAn almond in every bite

Rhumkugeln sounds better than Chocolate Truffles but they are the same thing. The occasional use of a bain marie in my house is always a welcome sign that something indulgent is in the making. In this instance a mix of melted dark and light chocolate is augmented with toasted hazelnuts and icing sugar. Once cooled we used teaspoons to create little balls of chocolaty goodness and rolled half in icing sugar and half in cocoa powder.

The hills are alive with the sound of grunting

The hills are alive with the sound of grunting

For that final touch of regional authenticity we asked an alpine pig to individually wrap them in foil, crêpe paper and mini bun-cases. If you are doing this at home just remember to ensure that your pig doesn’t eat too many truffles.

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I’m not an inspirational chef but I do take inspiration from good ingredients and recipe ideas. One of my weaknesses is recipe book dependence but that’s beginning to change. Over the last year or so I have made a conscious effort to adapt my shopping habits, largely in the face of my monumental hatred of Sainsbury’s. Let’s get something clear – they offer a paucity of choice when it comes to raw ingredients with aisles and aisles of processed food and only a very limited selection of anodyne factory produced “fresh produce”. Then there’s the relentless over-marketing whereby you are brow-beaten into buying 2 for 1 or 3 for 2 when you only wanted 1 so you buy too much overpriced food and it gets wasted. Shocking value and a wearisome shopping experience.

For Sainsbury’s read any of the major supermarkets, but there’s an alternative if you are prepared to forego a little convenience. I’ve taken to shopping at Aldi for mainstream items and then following up with specialist independent meat/fish/grocers for fresh produce. It’s more effort but a far superior shopping basket for two thirds of the cost makes it a no-brainer.

This is how shopping used to be before successive governments allowed the giant corporations to kill all the small independent retails along with our high streets. And my change in shopping habits is forcing me, in a positive way, to rethink the way I cook. No longer can I assume that my precise recipe ingredients will be available. More to the point the independent grocers always tempt me with fresh and exciting goodies that I wasn’t expecting. Much better therefore to ease off on the list and take inspiration from what’s available.

It also means that I am having to rediscover my cooking instincts. My plans to make some Indian influenced ice cream this weekend had to evolve due to a failure to obtain saffron along with arriving home with a glut of natural yoghurt. In Ready-Steady-Cook style, here’s what happened next…

Ingredients
250ml single cream
150ml milk
2tbsp Clear Honey
1tsp cinnamon
3 cardamom pods
3 large eggs
100g soft brown sugar
300ml natural yoghurt
Lemon juice
Chopped almonds

In the mix

In the mix

Instructions

1) Extract the cardamom seeds and chop them finely. I love cardamom and they are great in curries, rice, baking and green or ginger tea. They have to be great in ice cream don’t they?

2) Mix the cream, milk, honey, cinnamon and cardamom in a pan. I was toying with adding one or two cloves and even a light touch of chilli but let’s rein it in for now. Heat and keep stirring, but don’t boil.

Creamy loveliness

Creamy loveliness

3) Separate the eggs and add the yolks to the sugar in a bowl. This is orthodox ice cream making territory. Mix until smooth.

I'll make meringues with the spare egg whites

I’ll make meringues with the spare egg whites

Smoothly does it

Smoothly does it

4) Add the hot cream mixture to the bowl and stir. Return the mixture to the pan and heat until the mixture thickens, stirring all the time.

This is always the fun bit

This is always the fun bit

5) Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature and then transfer to the fridge for a couple of hours

6) Watch a film while waiting. I watched Fire In Babylon but you can substitute films of a similar length depending on what you have in stock.

7) Stir in the yoghurt and a little lemon juice. Hmmm, this should be interesting. I was going to add some lemon zest but … I forgot. Ho hum.

Not too much lemon juice - the yoghurt is quite sharp

Not too much lemon juice – the yoghurt is quite sharp

8) Pour the mixture into a pre-frozen ice cream maker being careful not to devour all of the mixture before it gets transferred. You don’t need a machine for this but it’s one of those gadgets I picked up along the way and if you are going to use it enough (like I do) then it does an effective labour saving job.

A messy business. Who designed this small opening?

A messy business. Who designed this small opening?

9) Once you are fed up of the racket made by your ice cream maker spoon the ice cream like contents into a container and store in the freezer.

10) Go to bed. Sleep. Get up. Do whatever it is you do before deciding that you fancy some ice cream.

11) Serve the frozen ice cream with some almond flakes or perhaps some kind of exotic Asian fruit salad. Perfect after a weighty Indian meal. Chicken Saag with masala stuffed baby aubergines and lemon rice since you ask.

But is it any good?

But is it any good?

Verdict – 8.5 out of 10. Good flavours, a fine way to finish an Indian meal and relatively healthy for an ice cream. The consistency was very slightly firm so next time I might change the cream to yoghurt ratio somewhat, or at least remove from the freezer a bit earlier. There’s plenty of scope to play with the flavourings. Some caramelised mango would go well with it.

I’m not sure if this is a recipe blog or an anti-globalisation rant but let’s worry about the taxonomy later – there’s ice cream to consume.

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