Archive for September, 2008

A RECIPE: Soda bread

Autumn has been fighting hard to shove aside summer in New York City. We’ve finally given in, powered down the A/C and pushed up the windows, letting in a cooling if slightly polluted breeze and all the delightful noises that a nocturnal Brooklyn blows in- fire trucks, drunk teenagers, car alarms and early morning visits from the refuse collectors. Home sweet home; as they say.

The enthusiastic presence of autumn has also induced a surge of baking in the brand new Baxter-Helm kitchen. Although, things did come to a temporary halt last night when I managed to spill Jamie Oliver’s favourite curry sauce all over my set of scales, leaving them decidedly MOA. There’s always a man to blame. Fortunately for Don, it was Jamie this time and not him. It was however, Don who broke my favourite tea-stained mug washing-up and fear not, for that he paid. A mug and my scales all in one weekend? Life, can be so brutal.

Still, I did manage to churn a delicious loaf of soda bread before things starting breaking- and if you can’t have a cup of tea in your favourite mug during times of solace, then at least have a slice of freshly baked soda bread with a wedge of cheese to hand. The smell of bread baking in the oven is one of life’s guilty pleasures and this rustic bread could not be easier to make- and by that I mean no yeast, no kneading and no rising. This is what we call in the cooking world ‘a dump and stir’- the ultimate in simplicity. Warning: this will not create a shiny, well rounded crust. It’s rugged defined edges all play a part in it’s rustic charm- the perfect source of comfort when life becomes particularly brutal.

Continue reading ‘A RECIPE: Soda bread’

Dinner party disasters

“So this is where the magic happens.”
Published in The New Yorker January 26, 2004

With a kitchen finally intact (if not completely without problems) I’ve taken it upon myself to do some serious catching up on two years past of a miserable lack of entertaining. The Ikea table, which I insisted on purchasing a year ago because it seats twelve people has remained mostly un-sat at. The last time I pulled both sides of the table leaves was in April- when I was filling in my tax return. Never have I gone so long without friends, food and wine around the table.

That said, it appears that throwing dinner parties, is much like learning a foreign language- if you fail to study for two years then you find yourself a bit in out of your own depth. The lessons you thought you had retained come back to haunt you- or kick you in the ass; as they say over here. For me, my lesson unlearned is trying out something new on the twelve eagerly anticipating and slightly tipsy guinea pigs sat at your dining table. Trying something new, or worse without a recipe, when you have people for dinner is like ordering off a menu in French, without your translations book. Fifty percent of the time you’ll hit a winner and the other fifty you wont. But either way you’ll spend much of the night knocking back wine with the Jaws theme tune on repeat in your head.  Nervous anticipation at what will emerge from the kitchen is not ideal when you have twelve other diners at the table.

Last weekend, Don was out for the night so I used this as an excuse to have eight girls over for dinner and a  gossip. I thought I was keeping things simple by making a vegetarian lasagna. I roasted squash, steamed and drained spinach, roasted thin slices aubergine and courgette, made a fresh cherry tomato sauce, caramelised onions, slow roasted tomatoes with thyme and had I not run out of time I would have made my own pasta. All the elements were delicious and the lasagna- cooked in an enormous dish came out of the oven deliciously bubbling over the sides with layers of beautiful colours and to me it was utterly disappointing.  It wasn’t hot enough in the middle and the individual goodness of each ingredient was overpowered by its neighbour. Plates were cleaned but my only relief was knowing that my desserts were going to be perfect- banoffee pie (an old school favourite) and chocolate nemesis from the River Cafe Cookbook- you can never go wrong with a flourless chocolate cake.

In lieu of that here are my tips for avoiding dinner party disasters:

1/ Cook what you know. If this isn’t an option then don’t panic, just keep your wine glass topped up.

2/ Use good quality in-season ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Alternatively, outsource- just not to Betty Crocker.

3/ Keep things simple- the best dinner party dishes are the one’s that don’t need lots of dashes to the kitchen- a sweaty brow and stained apron may get you the compliments you’re after but you won’t feel good.  If you like being sweaty in an apron then good for you.

4/ Delegate your guests to bring the starter and/or dessert. It’s one or two less things that you will have to worry about but will ultimately be remembered for; so choose your guests strategically.

5/ Start the evening with sparkling wine or champagne- I think this is a great way to create the atmosphere of decadence even if you’re only serving shepherds pie.

6/ Have nibbles out- that way if you find yourself with an undercooked turkey in the oven you have time to tear your hair out in the kitchen without your guests passing out of hunger. Alternatively, If you really screwed up, avoid the nibbles, let people get drunk and they’ll never know

7/ People like to hover in the kitchen, so rather than shooing them out try putting them to work.

8/ Forward planning- don’t try to serve three courses that need the oven or stove. Have at least one that can be assembled in advance.

9/ Cook in a nice dress and heels with a gin & tonic to hand and at least you’ll feel like Nigella.

CHEF’S TIP: Burning your butter?

If you like the taste of butter but find you always end up sacrificing a nice charred edge on your steak when you cook with it, then fear not. This weeks Chef’s tip comes from Aussie Chef, Curtis Stone and he has just the answer for your browned butter bust-ups. Use half olive oil, and half butter to cook with- olive oil has a higher smoking point than butter meaning that you can cook at higher temperatures and still get a nice char on your meat. And that’s just more proof that fat really is our friend.

In the picture: Chef Curtis Stone and Food Stylist extraordinaire Deb Winson

A RECIPE: Nutty granola

Granola, like museli, has become a very personal matter for me. Some people like dried fruits in it, others like chocolate- personally speaking I’m a nut girl and the more nuts on board the better the ride. Don frequently  suggests that I must have been a squirrel in my past life, what with the way that I obsess over nuts and seeds and hiding them in every baked good that I can. I’ve given up trying to scour the pre-made packages for one with all the right flavours, the right consistency, and the right ratio of oats to goodies and started making my own. Who knew that making granola could be such an open field for experimentation? It’s rather like making sandwiches- there will always be a new combination; and I find that quite thrilling.

I’ve been playing around with various binding agents, sweeteners and cooking times and my latest favourite introduces a heinously underused ingredient- cashew nut butter. It has a silky look to it, a smooth texture and a much more subtle flavour than peanut butter, making it ideal for baking without dominating the flavour like its more popular counterpart. It serves as a binding agent and gives the granola a surprisingly delicate crumb- tossed with crunchy toasted almonds, crispy pumpkin seeds, maple syrup and a pinch of Maldon Sea salt; I think its a little bite of granola heaven. I’m not going to sit and brag about my granola- frankly, it speaks for itself. But I will just point out that this is the best balanced granola I’ve ever made. Ever. Or eaten. Ever. And that’s not just the squirrel talking.

Continue reading ‘A RECIPE: Nutty granola’

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