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Monday, 20 September 2010

Ridiculously good apple pancakes



I ate way too much this summer.  Glossy magazines always tend to suggest that you'll get firmer and slimmer over the summer, partly because you'll permanently be on one of their "get bikini fabulous" diets and partly because summer is the season of salads and Atkins-friendly barbecues.  I say b******s to that: summer is the season of ice-cream, cold white wine and holidays where one throws dietary caution to the wind.  I also reckon that I ate more in June and July because I was on a serious Bikram yoga trip which meant that I was able to persuade myself that the extra slice of pizza (or in fact any pizza) was permissible because, you know, I'd done a serious workout.  As we now know, exercise won't make us thin because it messes with our minds in this way - check this out.

So now what am I doing now to counteract the effects of the past few months?  Why, I am doing something which I know deep down is a bad idea, but which has been espoused by the two great dietetic influences in my life: Liz Hurley and my friend Kathleen.  I am skipping breakfast.

And you know what?  It's gone ok over the past week or so.  I was a bit hungry by lunchtime, but no more than I usually am when I've had breakfast.  The big skinny coffee that I have in the morning does seem to tide me over.  Obviously I wouldn't recommend this if you're pregnant or if you do serious manual labour or if you are training for the Olympics or anything like that, but when you spend most of your working day hunched over a desk I really don't think that you're going to be putting your life at risk by trying it.  If you want.

But I draw the line at skipping breakfast at the weekend.  On Sunday just gone I made these apple pancakes for Mr. F and me, and they were really something. 

Makes four big pancakes (enough for two greedy people)

For the batter

150 g of plain flour (although I used half plain wholemeal and half tipo "00", which I would recommend)
1 and a half tbsps of caster sugar
One egg
Half a teaspoon of salt
Half a teaspoon of cinnamon
A teaspoon of bicarbinate of soda
100ml of milk
Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract

For the other bits

2 eating apples (I used Braeburn), peeled and cored and cut into slices no more than 5mm thick

2 teaspoons of butter for frying

(I make these pancakes in two small frying pans which speeds up the process considerably.)

Firstly, melt half a teaspoon of butter in a little frying pan over a medium heat.  Neatly arrange the apply segments in an attractive pattern, like this:



Let the segments fry for about four minutes, until they start to turn caramel-coloured around the edges.

Whilst they are cooking make the batter.  Start by tipping the flour, salt, sugar, cinnamon and bicarb into a bowl, making a well in the middle and then cracking the egg into the centre.  Whisk the egg and begin to draw the flour in.  When it becomes too thick to whisk gradually add the milk into which you've stirred the vanilla extrat.  The mixture should be slightly thicker than the consistency of double cream.  (You can make the batter in advance.  Many people will tell you it makes a better batter.  I don't know about that, but if you do I would leave out the bicarb and only add it just before you're about the cook the pancakes.)

When the apples have cooked for the aforementioned four minutes carefully pour about 1 quarter of the batter over the slices, ensuring that you fill the hole in the middle.  Don't worry - there will be enough batter for the four pancakes that you're aiming to make.  Let the pancakes cook until bubbles/little holes start to appear in the raw batter.  Flip the pancakes and cook for a further two to three minutes, or until golden on the other side.  Transfer to a warmed plate and cover with a tea towel if you're going to make a batch to serve.  Otherwise, eat with maple syrup and plain yoghurt whilst standing in the kitchen wearing manky pyjamas and an embarrassing pair of fluffy slippers.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Plum and almond tart


This is a photograph of a plate on which Mr F and I were served a delicious pudding during our honeymoon in Italy.  I can't remember what the pudding was, or even the location of the restaurant.  The only reason that the photograph is here is because I failed to take one of the plum and almond tart that I made at the weekend and which I took to my friend Jo's birthday party.

Mr. F said it was one of the nicest puddings that I had made and I think he might be right.  Certainly, it was a particularly successful batch of a pastry that I whipped up.  I have previously commented on this blog that I don't understand why people include souring agents in pastry recipes.  However, when I was making this pastry on Friday I was running low on eggs so decided to use yoghurt as a means of enriching normal shortcrust.  It produced a good result: the pastry was crumbly and yet also crisp.

A note on blind baking: this recipe is adapted from Shaun Hill's How to Cook Better.  He is an advocate for a controversial technique whereby he just whacks the pastry case in the oven, sans baking beans and everything, and lets it cook for fifteen-ish minutes.  If it rises up too much then he just presses it down with an oven-gloved hand.  I tried this method for the plum and almond tart and it worked well.  I often worry that blind baking with beans means that the pastry case retains an unappetising soggy bottom.  This was well and truly avoided using the Shaun Hilll way.

For the pastry
200g of plain flour (or tipo "00")
100g of unsalted butter
1 tbsp of caster sugar
1 tbsp of plain yoghurt
A jug filled with about 100ml iced water (i.e. cold tap water with some ice cubes floating in it)
Pinch of salt

For the filling
8 medium-sized plums, cut in half lengthways, stone removed
100g of ground almonds
100g unsalted butter
2 eggs
50g icing sugar
100g caster sugar
1 tbsp Amaretto

To make the pastry, put the butter, flour, sugar and salt in the food processor and blitz until fine breadcrumbs.  Add the yoghurt and set the processor to pulse.  The mixture should start to clag. Add a few drops of the iced water through the processor's funnel until the pastry begins to come together.  Tip it on to a work surface and knead lightly to encourage it to form a solid ball.  The dough should be fairly soft.  Wrap in clingfilm and chill for half an hour in the fridge.

After half an hour, roll out the pastry to fit a 23 cm fluted tart case.  Trim the sides.  Place the case in the freezer, uncovered, for ten minutes, or chill again in the fridge for another half an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.  Bake the pastry case for fifteen minutes.

Whilst it is cooking, whisk together all the ingredients for the filling, except for the plums.

Remove the tart case from the oven and reduce the heat to 160 degrees. Spoon in the almond filling and smooth with a spatula or palette knife.  Arrange the plums in attractive concentric circles.  Bake the tart for 40 to 50 minutes.  You are looking for the filling to be set: the best way to check, as with cakes, is to insert a sharp knife or skewer into the centre of the tart and see whether it comes out clean.  When it does, remove the tart from the oven and allow to cool in the tin for about half an hour.  Then remove and cool further on a wrack.  It is best eaten cold with double cream.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Murano

The eagle-eyed among you will have discerned from a recent tweet that Mr. F and I took ourselves off to Murano, the restaurant over which Angela Hartnett presides, for supper on Monday evening last.  I should explain, lest the flippant way in which I tweeted suggests otherwise, that this was an extravagance which was a celebration of Mr. F's last weekend of freedom from employment.  Splashing out at a pricey restaurant may sound like a counter-intuitive way in which to mark the passage from eternal student to economically viable adult, but it was actually important in that it signified the end of the era in which such last- minute moments of unrestraint were logistically possible.  Basically, we've both got full-time jobs now innit?

So, off to Murano we trotted.  I was intrigued, having read a number of reviews which were complimentary of the food but scathing in respect of the decor and ambience.  The london-eating website also revealed that several past diners had thought the portions measly and the service desultory.  It was therefore with a mixture of hunger, anticipation and trepidation that we stepped through the door.

And what did we find there?  Well, firstly, an elegant dining room done out in what some people have described as Gordon Ramsey beige but which actually seemed to me to be closer to Farrow and Ball's Pavilion Grey (look, we recently did up our flat, OK?).  There are Art Deco touches and a pleasingly curvy mural along one wall.  The grown-up colour scheme and mirrored surfaces were nicely offset by small posies of orange roses on the tables. 

We ordered apperitifs and wolfed down the delicious greaseless arancini, tiny little balls of a mushroom risotto.  Mr. F and I had decided prior to arrival that we were probably going to have to have the tasting menu, which is £75 (plus extra for cheese) for seven courses.  A brief perusal of the menu confirmed this.  I started with a dish of roasted San Marzano tomatoes with goats curd.  It was ok: I'm not entirely sure how I feel about goats curd.  Most of me thinks that it's just under-salted soft goats cheese and wouldn't it be better if we all just acknowledged that sometimes a bit of chevre is nicer.  Anyway, after that we both had a girolle risotto with a truffle vinaigrette.  I'm a fairly recent convert to mushrooms, and can still be a bit tentative on that front.  This was really savoury, and despite the presence of the truffle element, had none of the pungency of mushrooms which, along with the sponginess, is the bit that can put me off.

Next came some braised halibut with apple, not a combination which I would have immediately thought successful.  But it was fantastic - the crunchy sweetness of the apple complimented the salinity and soft texture of the fish.  There then followed a salad containing ripe peaches and raw almonds, which I personally thought was slightly under-salted (although having said that, readers should note that I am a complete salt hound).

I am rarely able to resist ordering duck when it's present on a menu, so guess what I had for my main course?  This time it was served with roasted melon and some of the best Pommes Anna I've had.  It was a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of cooking: the duck breast was tender and the skin crisp, the potatoes were perfectly seasoned, and as for the melon... Well, I'm not sure if you'd asked me before this meal if I thought that would be a winning combination whether I would have said yes.  But now I can say this: duck and melon is an extemely good combination, especially when the melon in question is a nice piece of Charentais which has been cooked with a serious amount of butter and salt.  It was a blinder.

We ordered cheese on the basis that it would be churlish not to.  It was fabulous, but to be honest I can't quite remember what we had, apart from a Pecorino, which had been repeatedly bathed in red wine.  I think it was called "drunk Pecorino".  And then there were two courses of pudding, which was real reason why I think I elected to go for the tasting menu.  I mean, how often can one get away with having two pudding courses?

The first dessert was an Amalfi lemon tart which although it pains me to say, might have been better than the one I made at Leiths.  The pastry shell was something to behold - perfectly cooked throughout, and really, really thin. 

And then there followed a dish that caused us such unparalleled delight that I am almost getting a bit teary thinking about it now.  It was a pistachio souffle with a hot chocolate sauce.  Now, we "did" souffles at Leiths, so I know what a massive scary faff they can be.  This pistachio number emerged from the kitchen having puffed up to stand a good two inches proud of the ramekin in which it had been cooked.  It didn't even deflate when its sugared carapace was scored and a deeply dark chocolate sauce was poured into the hole.  And when we tasted it, well, suffice it to say that a profound silence descended over the table.  It was sublime.  I've been sitting here trying to think how to describe the taste.  I keep wanting to say that it was really nutty and yet really light and yet also really creamy.  That sounds terrible, but is also the closest I can get.

I think the cooking at Murano is pretty special.  It's clever and considered, yet the menu is really appealing.  There's nothing on it that makes you think "ooh, that sounds a bit weird and not in a good way".  The staff are utterly charming.  The sommelier got the measure of Mr. F and me straight away, and recommended a Gattinara Riserva which served our purposes well, it being smooth and full, but not too tannic.

So, Murano gets a proper double thumbs up from me.  I reckon it would definitely be worth a punt if you had something to celebrate, even if it is just your thirty-something husband having finally knuckled down and gotten a job.

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