Friday, 30 January 2009

Obama and Americana

With the recent inauguration of the new American President, Barack Obama and the constant news coverage of his first week in the Oval office, it seems that all of us have spent some time reflecting on America's past and future this week. For me that naturally led to thinking about the American cuisine and it's contribution to the culinary world.

For most of us, when thinking about American food a picture of a cheese burger and fries will most likely come to mind. However, the American cuisine is a wealth of diversity and creativity, each state contributing with it's own unique style and flavours. Most of the major cities now boasts with Michelin starred restaurants, many of which are producing internationally recognised, talented chefs.

To celebrate this new era in American history, I decided to incorporate some classic American dishes into my weekly menu, all with a modern twist. I started the week with a deliciously creamy spoonbread. A classic cornbread mixed with creamed corn creating a soft and sweet accompaniment to honey glazed sausages and a pea-shoot salad. Next I served beautifully grilled plaice and steamed vegetables with a classic cheese and paprika sauce. By mid-week I created my own American inspired turkey and leek pie, encased in a buttery, crumbly pastry. I ended off the week with one of my all time favourite American inventions, the choc-chip cookie. To give it a new and exciting twist, I added some rolled oats and dried cranberries (another American favourite of mine) to the mix.

Biting into the delightful little cookie, sipping my cup of Americano coffee I gave a satisfied salute to the American cuisine and started thinking about my next culinary adventure.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

A month of Birthdays

January is always a month that is filled to the brim with birthdays, and for me that always means plenty of birthday cakes. In the last week I had to bake cakes for my husband, one of his work mates and one of our friends, and I was in seventh heaven! I love baking delicious, scrumptious and pretty cakes. The only problem I faced was choosing which of my 1001 recipes would best suit which birthday boy or girl.

My husband's one true food love is cheese, and so it was a natural choice to bake a lemon cheesecake for him. The base was a beautiful, crumbly mixture of digestive biscuits, soft butter and lemon zest, pressed into the bottom of the spring form tin. The cake itself was a glorious combination of rich double cream, smooth soft cheese, beautiful yellow organic eggs and even more lemon zest and a fresh squeeze of the juice. It might not have been the prettiest cake in the world, but topped with birthday candles and served with love, it was a real hit with all.

Next I was asked to bake a cake for one of the guys working with my husband, to be served to all of the boys at the workshop. This one was a bit trickier to choose, as there were many factors to consider here. Firstly, the guy whose birthday it was, had landed in hospital a few months ago after a heart attack and is on a very healthy diet, but still loves his chocolate. Secondly, the boss of the workshop has an extreme sweet tooth but oddly enough this is coupled with an aversion to chocolate. Lastly, there was my reputation to consider, this had to be a manly cake and yet still emanate all of my domestic goddessness. All of this brought me to a recipe for a plain buttermilk cake. Light, spongy and heart healthy , yet still sweet enough to even satisfy the boss. I baked it in a plain loaf pan, for it to be manly, and then adorned it with dark, melted chocolate and glistening red maraschino cherries for the feminine touch.

The last birthday cake I had baked was also by far my favourite. It was for one of my friends, who is a real girly girl, drinks sparkly drinks, a queen of accessorising and is a self-confessed chocoholic. Here, finally was my chance to get the creative juices flowing and to create something truly pretty. My first and most important task was to incorporate as much chocolate into this cake as I could. For this there is only one option: death-by-chocolate cupcakes. These amazing little cakes use the best cocoa powder, melted dark chocolate and beautiful bitter-sweet chocolate buttons. This is then topped with a darkly-delicious chocolate ganache-buttercream. Needles to say, this is not for the calorie-counting amongst us. To make these little cakes even more special, I took some inspiration from Nigella and topped them with dainty little wafer roses. As I placed the cake-plate in front of the waiting guests, an exited ripple of giggles escaped from them all. Ahh, how I love this feeling :)

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The blushing rhubarb

As unbelievable as it might seem and as embarrassed as I am to admit this, I have never cooked rhubarb in any way, shape or form. Even though I have read countless recipes that either starred or incorporated rhubarb in them, I have never actually produced any of these enticing dishes.

To put this shameful gap in my cookery skills right, I finally took the plunge and bought some beautiful, bright pink, forced rhubarb stems from my local fresh produce market yesterday morning. When I got home, I got all of my favourite cookbooks out and started looking for the one recipe that would not only do justice to this amazing ingredient but also deliver a mouth-watering result. Finally I found it, a classic rhubarb crumble with a little vanilla twist.

Chopping the stems into little chunks, covering it in vanilla sugar and tossing it around in a pan with melted butter, I wondered how it could have taken me this long to cook this wonderful vegetable. I revelled in making the crumble for the dessert, rubbing the cold butter into the soft, fluffy flour with my finger-tips and covering the gorgeous rhubarb with it. I slipped the pie dish into the heated oven with a wonderful, satisfied sense of achievement settling over me. I'm afraid I don't have a picture of the finished product, as I had several eager tasters standing around the oven as I took out the bubbling crumble, barely giving me time to spoon it into bowls. This may have been my first rhubarb dish, but I knew that it most certainly was not my last.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Orange

One of my favourite things in my kitchen is a wedding present I got from my Aunty. It's an orange Le Creuset casserole dish. Whenever I want to make something special and hearty for dinner, I take out this little beauty for the occasion. From pot-roasts to meaty stews, it always delivers amazing results and brings that WOW-factor to the table. I find that it really comes into it's own this time of the year, when the long and cold evenings lend itself perfectly to big, warming, slow-cooked meals.

That is why, yesterday for dinner I thought that I would use this old favourite of mine to try out a new recipe I had thought-up, borrowing a few ideas from the new WFI magazine. A fragrantly spiced beef and tomato stew, beautifully flecked with seasonal root vegetables and a good glug of red wine. As is best with these kinds of stews, I left it simmering away for well over 2 hours on the hob to develop the flavours and for the meat to go deliciously tender. The aromatic steam rising from the dish soon filled my kitchen, bringing to mind wonderful images of Italian country kitchens, intensely burning log fires and heavily laden tables surrounded by family and friends. Needless to say, I could hardly wait to tuck into a plateful of this gorgeous stew and neither could anyone else who saw the bright orange casserole pot sitting on the stove.

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Neglected KitchenAid

This morning, after I had my usual breakfast of porridge with dried cranberries and runny-honey, I was suddenly overtaken by the urge to bake something sweet. I started going through my kitchen cupboards to see what I could make, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my dust-covered KitchenAid standing mixer.

About a year ago I decided to treat myself to a Christmas present and ordered the mixer on the Internet. I still remember how giddy I was with excitement, I could not wait for it to arrive. When I got it, I could hardly control myself and ripped open the packaging. I marvelled at the gleaming white machine that stood in front of me, and immediately started going through my recipe books for ideas of things to make with it. For weeks afterwards I was still on cloud nine as I mixed, creamed, kneaded and baked batch after batch of cakes, cookies and breads. Unfortunately as with all things in life, the initial excitement wore off and I started using it less and less.

However, this morning after reminiscing about those first few weeks together I suddenly felt inspired to take it out of the cupboard and make my favourite cut-out cookies. I got out the eggs, butter, sugar and flour and started creaming, mixing and enjoying myself again. As the kitchen filled with the smell of the baking cookies, I could hardly keep the smile off my face. Once they were cooled and iced, and I sat down with a cup of coffee to enjoy the results of the morning's efforts, I felt like I had just caught up with a long lost friend. Who says you need a new gadget to make you happy?

Friday, 16 January 2009

In the Beginning

Food. Everybody needs it to survive, and a lot of us eat it purely for that reason. But there are a few of us for which food has become a passion and even an obsession. By this I don't mean that I sit and think about eating all day long, but rather that I create dishes in my head, imagine what they would look like, smell like, taste like... I'll read every food magazine that I can lay my hands on, pour over thick cooking volumes, watch hours of cooking shows, and spend days in my kitchen cooking, baking, creating.

Don't get me wrong, I haven't always had this obsession. I remember my teenage years, when I used to throw a drama queen hissy fit if my mother would even dare to ask me to help with preparing a simple salad. The kitchen to me was an oppressive prison, I didn't want anything to do with it.

At the tender age of 19 I left my parents' home in South Africa, got on a Boeing 747, and moved to London, UK. Suddenly I had to fend for myself, and most shockingly of all, cook for myself!!! Not only that, but my first job here in the UK was working in the busy kitchen of a country pub with a temperamental Portuguese chef! Not to worry, the irony was not lost on me or my family. I spent hours in that hot little kitchen, prepping veg, making batters, plating puddings, cakes and desserts and washing up. Oh, how I remember the washing up... Somehow, I thrived in that little kitchen, I learned a lot about myself and about food and found that cooking could actually be a pleasure!

After two months of working myself to the ground at the pub, I realised that the English country side, was not the most happening place for a 19 year old to spend their time. So I packed my bags and got on the bus, back to the metropolis of London.

I haven't worked in a professional kitchen since then, and who knows if I ever will. But one thing that has stuck from that experience is my ever increasing love for good food and the pleasure I get from feeding people. I want to share this passion with you, giving you glimpses into my kitchen and my food, and I hope to inspire you to not only eat to survive but to enrich your life as a whole.