Saturday, 19 April 2014

Who's hoping the Easter Bunny will hop by tomorrow?

Eggs are one of nature’s most complete foods but because yolks have a high fat content, eggs have moved in and out of dietary favour over the years. These days, an egg a day is believed to be okay (combined with an active lifestyle) - however, sadly the chocolate ones don’t figure in this equation! If you’re looking for some handmade alternatives to the usual commercial chocolate treats to celebrate Easter, then try my specialty baking ideas - real chocolate brownie cut into cute Easter theme shapes and Easter Cupcakes that can be decorated with pretty eggs, or as your heart desires.  When the chocolate items are homemade you know what's gone into them and they just taste better when made with love. Happy baking and happy Easter everyone!

Chocolate Brownie Chicks               
Makes 18, depending on size
150g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
150g butter, cubed
1 cup caster sugar
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup flour, sifted
1/2 cup cocoa powder, sifted
1 Heat oven to 180°C. Line a 17 x 27cm slice tin with baking paper. Place chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and microwave for 2 minutes, to melt. Stir until smooth.
2 Stir in sugar and then stir in eggs. Stir in flour and cocoa to just combine. Pour into prepared tin, smoothing the surface. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until cooked when tested with a skewer.
3 Remove to cool in tin. Use a small cookie cutter to cut out Easter theme shapes, such as chickens or bunnies. Decorate, if desired.

Chocolate Easter Egg Cupcakes    
Makes 12
125g butter, softened
1 cup caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1 1/4 cups self-raising flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 Preheat oven to 180°C. Line a standard muffin pan with paper cases. Place butter, sugar and vanilla in a bowl and beat until pale and creamy.
2 Beat in eggs. Stir in milk alternating with sifted flour and cocoa. Spoon batter into prepared cases and bake for 25 minutes.
3 Remove to a wire rack to cool. Decorate with chocolate icing and small Easter eggs.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Eggy Bread - Street food of Calcutta

Here's a step by step collage of how to make 'Eggy Bread' - an amazingly simple but tasty street food that I found at a corner stall in Calcutta. It may have a more sophisticated name, but Eggy Bread says it all, really. For the equivalent of about 30 cents you've got a great snack or light meal on the run.

Eggy Bread - the recipe
Make a simple 2 egg omelette with some sliced green chilli and red onion and seasoning thrown in for good measure. Add to a hot pan with a little sunflower oil. Immediately add two thick slices of bread, drizzle with some ghee (clarified butter) and turn over to fry bread for a minute. Sandwich together and cut into quarters. Pop into a paper bag and munch on pieces as you walk down the street. Well, that's how it rolls in Calcutta! Delicious!

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Incredible India... the adventure begins

    India truly is the ultimate land of contrasts. Here, staggering grandeur sits alongside heart-wrenching poverty. Old ladies in traditional saris chat on fancy mobile phones while young women carry vast, heavy bundles on their heads, gracefully crossing modern six-lane highways. 

 Indian driving initially seems totally crazy, but it’s actually a well-ordered system. Tooting is imperative. A loud honk doesn’t mean ‘get out of the way’, generally the driver is simply saying ‘hey, I’m coming through.’ This friendly practice keeps the traffic flowing and a chorus of constant tooting fills the air, all day, every day.

    Kicking off in Delhi, I visit major tourist sites and explore fascinating back streets. I find the best way to travel is by auto-rickshaw, also known as the tuk tuk. These wee vehicles can zip in and out of traffic with ease, sometimes scarily but generally safely and provide a fun way to get to destinations around town.

 So, I hail a tuk tuk and motor towards Old Delhi’s intricate oriental bazaar – a jigsaw puzzle divided into different specialty stalls and workshops. In its atmospheric lanes I am hypnotised by the fragrances of the spice bazaar, and mesmerised by the vibrant sari stalls and handmade kites.

 There’s a whole street of stalls selling threaded flower garlands, incense and other temple offerings, and tantalising street food stalls everywhere. 

 Lethargic cows wander most streets. The Hindus regard them as holy animals. To my surprise a seemingly docile creature aims its horns, and head down, launches itself towards me. I’m further surprised when a tiny, frail, old lady pulls me up into her shop, beating the cow away with a stick. When I calm down I thank her as best I can, then carry on my way, vowing to be a lot more wary of holy cows in future.

Next stop is the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur – the Pink City – so called because many
of the buildings are painted a pinkish colour (with natural pigments and white relief), the traditional colour of welcome. There’s much to see in Jaipur: the Amber Fort, the City Palace complex and the majestic Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), where in days gone by the royal ladies of the harem could watch the street below through the lattice of tiny windows, without being seen.

Jaipur is a busy city, too. At any time of day, a jumble of taxis, tuk tuks, carts laden with fabric or produce, cows, rickshaws, camels, elephants, bicycles, and a sea of people swirl through the streets. 

I've been here two weeks now (with several months left to explore) and already my mind is a whirl of colourful images, unforgettable experiences, spicy taste memories, and friendly faces. India is many things to many people, but to me, it’s an endlessly fascinating visual feast that must be tasted at least once in a lifetime. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The Menace of Culinary Displacement in Paris

This is a great article about the changing face of food in Paris, written by Alexander Lobrano, and kindly reproduced via Paris by Mouth 

The Menace of Culinary Displacement in Paris

Bouef Bourgignon at Le Rubis - one of the rare remaining casual bistro tables
Bouef Bourgignon at Le Rubis – one of the few remaining casual bistro tables
After a recent morning spent playing restaurant ping-pong via email with my friend Dorie, it dawned on me. We were trying to create an eating itinerary of traditional French bistros for a pair of retired chefs visiting from Oklahoma, and it proved to be a daunting task. Why? These men were coming to France to eat epic Gallic grub—you know, blanquette de veauboeuf bourguignon, and coq au vin—and even with the difficulty of summer opening hours notwithstanding, it startled me to realize there’s just not a lot of that on offer in Paris anymore.
The explanation for this surprising state of affairs is that Paris is in the midst of an accelerating process of culinary displacement that’s sidelining traditional French food. These days, in fact, it’s a lot easier to find an Italian or a Japanese meal in a popular Paris neighborhood like Saint-Germain than it is a traditional French one.
Pizza Chic - one of a growing number of non-French eateries in Saint-Germain
Pizza Chic – one of a growing number of non-French eateries in Saint-Germain
There are many reasons why culinary displacement, or the substitution of one cuisine for another, can occur in any large city. Immigration can add a new ethnic kitchen to a gastronomic landscape, food styles change, economic factors favor one cuisine over another, and of course there are food fads and trends. In some circumstances, culinary displacement can be an exciting and rather wonderful thing. For example, I consider the relatively recent availability of good Mexican food in most large American cities to be a good thing because it’s one of the world’s great cuisines and its availability has added rather than subtracted something to available restaurant choices in most American cities. Similarly, the spectacular array of ethnic cuisines on offer in London today has made it one of the world’s great food cities, and they’ve enriched the city’s restaurant offer rather than diminishing it.
What’s happening today in Paris, however, is different. Instead of complementing the existing restaurant offer, many of the new kitchens and restaurant formats are cannibalizing the city’s gastronomic landscape, and something really precious—notably traditional bistro cooking—is being lost.
Newer restaurants like Le Galopin from Top Chef winner Romain Tischenko are not serving traditional fare
Mandolin-sliced, not long-simmered: Top Chef generation chefs are not serving traditional French fare
There are lots of reasons for this. Among them, the business-lunch trade that sustained the balance sheets at many traditional bistros has changed in favor of meals that are lighter, shorter and cheaper, while corporate France continues to migrate out of Paris to adjacent suburbs with larger modern office spaces. In addition, the younger “Top Chef” generation of French chefs want to express their culinary creativity rather than cook such rock-of-ages dishes as pot au feu or cassoulet. Restaurant investors prefer cooking formats that are cheap and easily prepared, which explains the dulling incidence of mid-range Paris restaurant menus of tomato-mozzarella salads and salmon tartare—dishes any Senegalese line cook can learn to make in five minutes. That seems to be fine with many affluent calorie-conscious bobos who more interested in stylish places with good atmosphere and décor than they are in good cooking. Younger Parisians, who come from families with busy working parents who did little cooking, either don’t know the cannon of traditional French bistro cooking or find it too ‘heavy.’
Costes Brothers establishments like the Cafe Francais emphasize style over sustenance
Costes Brothers establishments like the Café Francais emphasize style over sustenance
The upshot of all this is that the traditional Paris bistro, those cosy places with lace curtains, red-checked tablecloths and the rich soothing smell of long simmered cooking that greets your nostrils when you step in the door, those uber-French tables that are the determined destination of thousands of tourists sitting with their knees pressed up against airplane seat backs as I write these words, has morphed into a rare species which often charges stiff prices for a sincerely sepia experience of traditional French food. Today, rather than being the ballast of the Paris restaurant landscape, ‘real’ bistros are now marketed as nostalgic curiosities where you often pay a steep price for the privilege of eating ‘real’ French food.
A dish of cassoulet at Allard
A dish of cassoulet at Allard
Culinary displacement is occurring at other levels of the Parisian food chain, too, since for every excellent neighborhood eat-in or take-out traiteur like CheZaline that opens in Paris, a dozen more Subways seem to appear every month and the business districts of central Paris have become dominated by sleek soup-sandwich-salad places like Cojean. The latest challenge to traditional Parisian eating habits at the casual-dining end of the spectrum, however, is the sudden and huge popularity of hamburgers.
It’s easy to see their appeal to restaurant investors. Hamburgers are easy to make, popular with both locals and tourists, and are quickly consumed, which means you can flip tables more often. Make them with pedigreed ingredients and you can charge a premium price, too.
Burgers from Le Camion Qui Fume, one of the engines behind the current burgermania
Burgers from Le Camion Qui Fume, one of the engines behind the current burgermania
So what is burgermania in Paris displacing? It’s probably nibbling into the margins of cafés that do lunch menus based on salades composée and steak frites and also drawing trade away from bakeries and traiteurswhich sell such French classics as the baguette jambon beurre (buttered baguette filled with ham), quiche and salads like carottes râpées or céleri rémoulade.
Every time a Parisian choses a burger, he or she is not choosing something indigenous, whether it’s a café salad or a crêpe. A yen for novelty is of course normal, and I love a good burger as much as the next man, but there’s no doubt in my mind now that galloping imitation bred by the success of the first and rather welcome burger places in Paris is putting the city’s casual dining scene in the same threatened category as its traditional bistros.
A lunchtime salad of seasonal mushrooms & fresh greens from the Café des Musées
A lunchtime salad of seasonal mushrooms & fresh greens from the Café des Musées
So can or should anything be done about the culinary displacement that’s making Paris less Parisian? While a certain degree of gastronomic evolution is natural, there’s no doubt in my mind that something precious is being lost, and happily others have noticed, too. The whole idea of chef Yannick Alleno’s bistro Terroir Parisien, which uses produce from the Île-de-France to prepare classic Parisian dishes, is to promote the idea that Parisian cuisine really does exist and needs to be promoted and protected. Chef Alain Ducasse has also become something of a white knight by recently adding Allard in Saint-Germain to his cluster of historic Paris restaurants that already includes Benoît and Aux Lyonnais.
A classic salade frisée from Terroir Parisien
A classic salade frisée from Terroir Parisien
However, a lot more needs to be done to protect and preserve certain delicious and unique elements of the Parisian gastronomic ecosystem. France desperately needs to overhaul its tax structure for the country’s entire sit-down restaurant industry to make business conditions more favorable, and the city of Paris could create a “Un Vrai Bistro de Paris” label like the one that exists for the ‘real’ bouchons (Lyonnais style bistros) in Lyon. And how’s about an annual Parisian food festival to promote and celebrate the city’s gastronomic heritage? And maybe the major French food magazines will stop offering recipes that involve spooning things into water glasses and return to proposing those that appeal to serious cooks.
Ultimately, of course, the choice remains with Paris restaurant-goers, since choosing a restaurant is a consumer choice. So in the same way that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, you can lead a Parisian to onion soup but you can’t make him spoon it up.
The lunchtime crowd at Belleville bistro Le Baratin
The lunchtime crowd at Belleville bistro Le Baratin
There’s reason to hope, however. People in other parts of France, like Alsace, for example, still ardently love their regional kitchens and the popularity of sushi in Strasbourg has only served to enrich that city’s food offer without putting any of its rightly famous winstubs out of business. Then, too, Parisians may eventually tire of cheeseburgers and the growing locavore movement in the city could lead to a renewed interest in traditional Parisian bistro cooking. I sure hope so, since I’d love to have more than a dozen answers to the single question I’m most often asked by visitors, which is “Where can we go to get a really good old-fashioned bistro meal?”
By Alexander Lobrano,

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The delights of fig jam...

I love jam making and in general, I prefer to make small batches, as I think made this way the product retains its flavour and integrity. However, when my favourite fruit is in season, such as plums, cherries, or figs, I tend to get a bit carried away and cook up bigger batches of jam or chutney. It’s a much bigger task and the boiling and bottling can sometimes feel like it’s going on forever. At my work's end though, I gain a huge feeling of triumph from gazing upon rows of colourfully filled jars. They’re really fun to give away as gifts, too.

Preserving, it could be said, is a bit like bottling sunlight. All the warmth and flavour of sun-ripened fruit and vegetables can be captured and stored away, and then brought out again at a later date when we notice their absence. Served in their simplest form with bread or used as accompaniments for both sweet and savoury dishes, nothing matches the full flavour of homemade preserves. And believe me, the incredible feeling of satisfaction from having prepared your own jam or chutney can only be matched by the joy of eating it.
Last week I was given a huge pile of figs from a friend’s tree, so I got to work making a whole load of pretty-pink fig jam. In this case, the figs had actually been frozen, but this didn’t alter my recipe or method. You might have to wait until next fig season to make this particularly delightful conserve, but here’s my step by step recipe for making this jam yourself. So, here we go…

900g (2 pounds) figs, washed, dried and quartered
150ml water
450g (1 pound) white granulated sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
Place figs and water in a large, heavy-based pan or preserving pan. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until figs are tender (there’s no need to add water if using frozen figs, as they will be watery already).
Now add the sugar and lemon juice and stir over low heat until sugar has dissolved. 
Raise the heat and boil the mixture, stirring occasionally, for around 40 minutes or until thick and syrupy and the jam has reached setting point. You can tell this by testing a very small amount of jam on a chilled plate - run your finger through this bit of jam and if it crinkles then it is ready to set. If it's still very runny then it needs a bit more boiling.

Remove pan from the heat, skim any foam from the surface of the jam. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, as this will help evenly distribute the fruit when it goes into the jars.
Stir gently, then ladle into hot, sterilised jars (I use a jam funnel, pictured above, to help guide the jam into the jars cleanly). Seal well. See cook's tips (below) on how to sterilise jars. Store jars of jam in a cool, dark place and refrigerate after opening.  
Makes 1.6kg (3 1/2 lb)
Cook’s notes:
·      Sterilising jars is important to protect your jam from spoiling. Wash jars well in hot soapy water, rinse, place in oven preheated to 160°C for 20 minutes. Ladle hot jam into hot jars and seal immediately. Stored and sealed correctly, jam will last for up to 12 months. Keep jam in the fridge after opening.
·      The addition of lemon juice adds extra pectin, which aids the setting of the jam. Pectin is a natural setting agent found in fruits (some fruits have a higher content than others). If problems with setting are experienced add a little more lemon juice, as this acid helps extract pectin from the fruit. Or you can actually buy pectin to add when jam making.
·      Sugar is necessary for preservation, for flavour and for setting the jam. The amount of sugar added can be cut back a little, if desired. However, too little sugar will result in the jam fermenting and not setting properly.
·      Jams very low in sugar have a much shorter life and should be stored in the refrigerator.
·      Eat it by the spoonful as a ‘spoon sweet’ as they do in the Middle East.
·      Slather jam on croissants, toasted bagels or your favourite bread.
·      Whip up a trifle… dollop jam in between layers of trifle sponge cake. Add some fresh berries, if you like and top with lashings of Crème Anglaise (vanilla custard).
·     Make delicious jam tarts by placing spoonfuls of fig jam into sweet shortcrust pastry shells. Bake until the jam bubbles in the oven and the pastry turns golden brown.