Monday, 28 September 2009

Daring to Relax

Another month has flown by and my, what a month it has been. Things at work have gone from being busy to being down right crazy, with orders flowing in from all directions and big department stores queuing up to get our cookies into their foodhalls. Don't get me wrong, I'm not bragging or complaining here. I'm just trying to explain why, when I opened up the Daring Bakers website this month and saw that our challenge this time will be Vol-au-vents, I didn't exactly jump with joy.

I love working with pastry and really wished that this challenge had been set at a less hectic time. I could have spent hours in the kitchen, making all sorts of different shapes and sizes, each batch getting a different delicious and creamy filling to make all of the senses pop. Unfortunately, I was lacking both the time and the energy for this sort of venture, and therefore decided to make only a small portion of the pastry and to use it for large vol-au-vents for one of our mid-week dinners.

After reading through the pages of discussion from the other Daring Bakers, and realising that many of them did not succeed on their first go, I was a bit hesitant on using one of my rare days off to make the pastry. However, I was determined not to let this challenge pass me by and after deciding to just go for it, got my rolling pin out. I was only a few minutes into the process, getting ready to roll the butter into the leaves of the beautiful, soft dough when I realised that I was starting to relax and I could actually feel the stresses of my month rolling away with each turn of the pastry.

By the time the pastry was ready to finally roll out and cut into the required discs, I was so relaxed and happy to be in my own kitchen again, that my head was buzzing with ideas of fillings for the gloriously golden, wonderfully risen cups. After a quick rummage through my fridge, I decided on a delicate and soft, whole grain mustard flecked, cream cheese filling, topped with a wafer thin slice of smoked salmon, a small and piquant peppadew pepper and a bright green sprig of rocket. Needless to say, leftovers were not a problem and I luckily remembered to snap a picture of them before they dissapeared into hungry tummies.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Figs and Family

In my life, I have upped roots and relocated more times than I care to remember. When asked were I grew up, I can never give a simple answer, but rather have to list the names of several cities and towns were me and my family had lived. This wasn't always a bad thing though, as each new home brought new friends, new experiences and new regional fresh produce. One of our many moves took us to the affluent suburbs of Pretoria and we lived in a big old house with a long established garden. Although this was by no means my favourite house, I remember this garden very fondly as in it there was a mulberry tree, a plum tree and most amazingly a fig tree. We spent many a Saturday up in the branches of these trees, filling our stomachs to bursting point with all the juicy, purple fruits. Since then we have lived in many more homes and I have even moved half way across the world, but I still miss that fig tree.

Although I decided to move to the UK years ago and it's a choice I have never regretted, living so far away from my family has never gotten any easier. There are however things that make their absence almost bearable, regular calls thanks to the wonder of Skype, quickly typed emails to share a joke, or even eating one of their favourite foods. Here, once again my thoughts turn to figs. Not only are they a reminder of days spent back home with family, but they have also come to be a reminder of wonderful visit here in London with my mum and aunty. The three of us, sitting on the steps in front of St. Paul's cathedral, wrapped up warm against the chilly autumn wind and breaking open our figs' purple skins to reveal the bright red flesh inside. This is why, when these fruits start making their appearance in the green grocers and supermarkets, I cannot leave the store without a few of them in my shopping bag.

They are such amazing fruits, that I usually eat them all, fresh and unadorned before I even have time to think about making anything more from them. However, when I brought home a bag full the other day, I somehow managed to stop myself from eating them all and starting thinking of making a dessert with them. Cut into quarters, drizzled with honey, beautifully arranged on a crisp palmier and served with a generous dollop of Greek yoghurt, this tasted so heavenly that I completely forgot to take a picture of the end result! I did however remember all the good times, spent in the company of the ones I love.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Fishy Business

As I pull open my curtains in the mornings, I am met by yellows, oranges, browns and faded greens, all rustling in the chilly wind as I walk to work. The evenings are drawing to a close earlier each day and once again I find myself searching for meals to warm me from the inside out.

Meaty, rich red burgers with chunky oven crisped chips. Fat, round and glossy brown sausages on a bed of creamy mash smothered in a luxurious onion gravy. Silky smooth and flavourful broad bean and butternut risotto, is to name but a few dishes that regularly make it onto our dinner plates. There is however something that does not make its appearance on our plates often enough and that is fish. I am not the world's greatest lover of fish. Sea-food I simply adore, but when I am faced with a pink, raw piece of salmon or a whole sea bass, I very quickly turn up my nose. This is once again my childhood fussiness making me prejudice to something that is both extremely good for me and actually truly delicious.

Yet again determined to change my own mindset toward another one of my food dislikes, I have tried and tested several ways of cooking all sorts of fish. Obviously, coating a piece of white fish in a bubbly batter and deep frying it, is one of the easiest ways to disguise the taste of the fish, but is by no means a healthy plate of food. Grilling salmon fillets and serving it with lemony veggies is a much healthier option and I will every so often prepare and eat this meal, but it still wasn't the answer. Then, very unexpectedly and thanks to another request from Paul, the answer came to me, fish pie!

The perfect combination of oily, white and smoked fish, all delicately poached in a milky fish stock. Then smothered in a rich and creamy white sauce, dotted with pink prawns and green peas and covered with fluffy mash and strong cheddar gratin. This was exactly what I was looking for, and exactly what I prepared when another chilly evening pushed me into the warmth of the kitchen. Taking the bubbling pie dish from the oven, my mouth was already watering for a bite. Happiness :)

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Last Hurrah

The August Bank Holiday signifies three things to me. Firstly it's a weekend when London is overrun with tourists, all blowing on whistles and admiring the bright and beautiful costumes of the parades of the Notting Hill Carnival. Secondly comes the knowledge that the next Bank Holiday we will have is Christmas Day and that the year is fast coming to an end. Thirdly it officially and boldly signals the end of Summer.

I always approach this weekend with a jumble of mixed feelings and a certain amount of anticipation. After having lived in the hub of the Notting Hill Carnival for several years and having experienced both the good and the bad sides of this crazy street party, Paul and I no longer have any desire to go anywhere near it. We therefore usually see this as an opportunity to escape the city and go find ourselves some greener pastures. Knowing that time has again made a fool of us and that all too soon we will be feeling the brisk bite of the Autumnal winds, we try to squeeze a little bit more pleasure from the last days of Summer. But it also means that I will again have access to the abundance of hedgerow fruits and late Summer English plums with which to bulk up my preserves stocks to my heart's content.

This year, to get away from the crowds we headed to the tranquil and soft green surroundings of the beautiful New Forest for our last Summer hurrah. Walking through the winding forest trails, feeding the free running horses and admiring the lush green foliage, we stumbled upon a natural treasure! Overgrown hedges bursting with deep purple blackberries, ripe and ready for the picking. Quickly finding some empty containers from our lunch, we foraged our way through the prickly bushes. Even with a lot of berries making it into our mouths rather than the containers, we still managed to pick enough for me to make a couple of jars of jam.

Once we arrived back from our trip, relaxed and happy I took out the little fruits and grabbed the basket of colourful plums I had bought on the way home, ready to start my little one woman production line. I have plenty of books and notes on the subject of preserving, but the two gurus I turn to again and again for advice and guidance are the WI and Pam Corbin of the River Cottage Handbook. With the help of these lovely ladies, I soon had the kernels of the plums cracked and blanched, the plums stewing away in a fragrant syrup and the blackberries washed, checked for creepy-crawlies and ready to add to the pan.

Pouring the last purple spoonful of jam into the hot, sterilised jar I was sad to say goodbye to the splendour of Summer. But with my cupboards filled with preserves, chutneys and jams I also looked forward to starting a new season and enjoying all of the culinary opportunities it will bring.