Thursday, December 30, 2010

Chocolate Sandwich Cake with Chestnut & Whisky Cream Filling

So I was making a birthday cake. I knew I wanted it to be a chocolate cake, but the person who normally bakes the cakes in this house was the person whose birthday it was and I was nervous in the run-up to the event, never having baked a cake before. I had my eye on a recipe in Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques for a fridge cake involving a lot of chocolate, some butter, some rum and that tin of Clement Faugier Sweetened Chestnut Purée that had been sitting at the back of the food cupboard for about a year without my having any idea what to do with it. Actually, what I really wanted to cook was Anthony Bourdain's Charlotte de marrons, but I couldn't find sponge fingers anywhere.

In the end, I decided that the fridge cake would be excessively alcoholic, so I decided to cook a cake I had at least seen being baked before, and then modify it somewhat. So, this is a modified version of Nigella Lawson's chocolate Birthday Cake from How To Eat; the filling is my own, inspired my Messrs Pepin and Bourdain, and is based on my wish to use both chestnuts and alcohol to make the cake a bit more a.) seasonal and b.) interesting.

For the cake:

225g self-raising flour
30g best cocoa
200g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
200g condensed milk
100g best quality dark chocolate
2 eggs, beaten

For the chocolate ganache:

100g best quality dark chocolate
100g best quality milk chocolate
200ml double cream

For the filling:

1 tin of sweetened chestnut purée (i.e. the stuff I mentioned above, or something similar - don't use use tinned chestnut purée that they sell for Christmas stuffing. The stuff you want has been heavily sweetened and flavoured with vanilla and other things and is a thick, glossy, sticky sludge when you open the tin.)
200ml double cream
1 double measure of whisky/rum/brandy

[The following method is mostly Nigella, with my annotations.]

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas mark 4. Put the kettle on. Butter two shallow sandwich tins. [Nigella says line the base with baking parchment. I didn't, but I did use a carving knife to help get the cakes out of the tins when I'd finished.]

Sieve the flour, cocoa and a pinch of salt together into a large bowl and set aside.

Put the sugar, butter, condensed milk, 100ml just-boiled water and the chocolate, broken into small pieces, into a saucepan and heat until melted and smooth. Then stir this into the flour-cocoa mixture with a wooden spoon, and when all is 'glossily amalgamated', beat in the eggs.

Pour into the sandwich tins and bake for 20 minutes, no longer.

Leave to cool in the tins and then turn out onto a rack.

To make the ganache, break up the chocolate into small pieces (you could blitz it in a blender if you like) and put it in a medium-sized bowl. Heat the cream to boiling, but don't let it boil [that doesn't really make any sense, Nigella] and then pour it over the chocolate. Leave for five minutes and then, preferably with an electric mixer, beat until combined, coolish, thickish and glossy.

To make the filling...well, I sort of winged it, but here's how. The purée will come in a 500g tin and you need about 300g. Scoop it out into a medium-sized bowl. Add the liquor of choice and mix it in with a fork so that it's absorbed. Whip the cream with your electric mixer (you've washed the mixer bits since making the ganache, obviously) and then gently amalgamate the whipped cream into the chestnut/liquor goo until you get a thick but spreadable, pale brown cream. Yes, you could leave out the alcohol but don't do so on the grounds that it's more healthy: there is absolutely nothing healthy about this cake, and anyway the chestnut filling will seem tooth-hurtingly sweet without it.

It's important to wait until the cakes are cool before you put them together, otherwise the filling might melt. Spread the top half of one of the cakes with the chestnut/whisky cream. Be generous. Pretend it's the biggest and richest peanut butter sandwich ever. Gently lower the other cake on top and press down very gently (i.e. don't crush the damn thing). Lastly, spread your ganache on top of the upper surface of the upper cake (and the sides too, if you can be bothered) and let it set. It's probably a good idea to store this cake in the fridge so that the cream doesn't go off, but on the other hand that's liable to make the cake go stale quicker, so you should really try to eat it as soon as possible. I hope that's not too much trouble.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Deconstructed Chasseur (Il y a hors-de-poulet)

So I had some chicken thighs (bone-in) and some mushrooms, and I was thinking about chicken chasseur, chicken cacciatore, all those unfashionable but warming, herby, rich chicken casseroles we love, from the more mountainy bits of France and Italy. Usually I think that you can't do anything more sensible with a chicken than clean it, dry it, truss it, sprinkle it with salt and roast it, but I was thinking seriously about doing something casserole-y with my chicken pieces.

The only problem is that one of the main reasons I eat chicken is the skin. I love chicken skin. (This is the point where I would normally like to provide useful nutritional information about how relatively healthy chicken fat is compared to other fats, but the trouble is that most websites out there that offer 'information' on such topics are written by hysterical wellness gurus who want to sell you things.) The trouble with chicken casseroles is that skinning the chicken leaves you with tender but rather bland pieces of meat that lack a lot of the fun of eating chicken in the first place, but if you don't skin them, the skin turns flabby and unappealing in the sauce. I quite like eating fat, but not big moist claggy lumps of the stuff.

Then I had a thought, which doesn't happen very often. Given that I had more chicken thighs than I strictly needed, why did I have to cook them all in the sauce? Couldn't I keep some aside and let them be treated the way chicken thighs should be treated, with dry heat and a frying pan, while a couple sat in the sauce and lent their flavour to it?

So I marinated my chicken thighs overnight in a mixture of white wine, olive oil, garlic and rosemary. I was on a bit of a rosemary kick; I knew that this dish was going to be seriously browned and earthy and rich, so it needed a sharp aromatic note to cut through all that.

The following evening, I sautéed chopped onion, carrot and celery in olive oil in a big pot, took it out, and browned a couple of chicken thighs in the oil, then returned the vegetables, added a good amount of vegetable stock (made with stock powder), a splash of white wine, some chopped fresh thyme and a bay leaf, and simmered the result for a couple of hours. In the meantime, I made the rest.

The garnishes were to be bacon lardons and mushrooms. I could have cooked these in the sauce, of course, but that would have made everything taste of everything else. I browned the lardons and set them aside, then browned small, whole white button mushrooms in olive oil and a little of the fat the lardons gave off.

An hour before cooking time, I put the remaining chicken thighs in a moderate hot oven to bake. Half an hour later they were cooked through and had given up a lot of their fat, but I still didn't have the seriously crispy and aromatic skin that I wanted. That called for a last spell in a frying pan.

I put the cooked chicken thighs skin-side down in a frying pan over a moderate heat, and threw in a sprig of rosemary. The whole sprig of rosemary is crucial here, if you want the result to have an almost trippily herbal aroma; if you don't like rosemary, well, don't do it. I learned this chicken-in-the-pan trick from Nick Nairn's book New Scottish Cookery. Baking chicken in the oven will give it puffed skin, but if you want the skin to get insanely crispy and almost crackling-like, there's nothing like putting it in direct contact with hot metal. It needs to sit there for about fifteen minutes and it will spit a lot. But apart from flavour and texture, the other good thing about this is a lot of the subcutaneous chicken fat will render into the pan as the skin cooks; you may even need to pour some of it off. (You can either throw the rendered fat away or use it to cook with. It's a popular condiment in European Jewish cuisine, but have a thought for your arteries and don't eat it all the time.)

(You could cook the chicken thighs like this without first baking them, but they'll spit all over your hob and the surrounding area and you'll be wiping up for a long time afterwards. Cooking boned chicken thighs doesn't take as long, but then they aren't half as tasty, not to mention being more expensive.)

35 minutes before showtime, a handful of puy lentils thrown into the sauce added body and texture, and the mushrooms and bacon went in with five minutes to go. I reserved the chicken thighs that had been cooked in the sauce (put them in a bowl, let them cool down before sticking them in the fridge and the flesh will be great in a sandwich the next day.) Serve the sauce in a bowl and place your crispy chicken thighs on top, after letting them drain for a couple of minutes on some kitchen paper; accompany with a green salad. This chicken is so hunterish it's practically walking the hills with a shotgun over its shoulder.

Chicken thighs are very cheap, and to my mind tastier and more succulent than chicken breast, which is the bit of the chicken you offer to people who don't like food. Thighs are also tougher and more fatty, but that's where long slow cooking comes in. This modified chasseur recipe combines the best bits of roast chicken with the depth of flavour you get from cooking a sauce with chicken bone in it. Cooking the bacon and the mushrooms separately keeps the different flavour elements isolated from each other until the last minute, so that they all sing together on the plate. Or, as in this case, in the bowl.

Given that this is a modification of an already pretty corny old recipe I've called it Deconstructed Chasseur, out of a fondness for unfashionable flavours of continental philosophy. The subtitle is a nod to the great Roland Barthes: as much flavour as possible, Roland, baby.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scrambled Eggs with Smoked Salmon

My mum started to cook this on Christmas mornings when I was a teenager, and it became a bit of a tradition.

Per person:

a handful of shredded smoked salmon (trimmings will do)
2 eggs
Wholemeal toast

Beat the eggs in a bowl and add the smoked salmon and a healthy grind of black pepper. No need to add salt; the salmon will add all the salty notes you need.

Melt butter in shallow frying pan or saucepan and when it's frothing, put the toast in the toaster and press the lever, add the eggs to the butter and beat them with a wooden spoon or, better, a wooden fork until they're creamy. No matter how many eggs you use, this should take as long as it takes for your toast to cook. (Don't wait until after the butter has stopped frothing because then it'll be too hot.) As soon as they are creamy but no longer runny, serve on the toast; you don't really need to butter the toast (I never bother) but you could if you really, really love butter. The ideal beverage accompaniments are O.J. and good coffee. Or something cold, grape-derived, dry and sparkling. Either, really.

Don't be tempted to make this with equal amounts of salmon and egg. Heating the salmon enhances the salty flavour, and you don't want to be eating great masses of hot smoked salmon. The dominant ingredient should be creamy scrambled eggs, with tasty shreds of smoked salmon suspended in it here and there, the whole given fire and life by fresh pepper. (If you're scared of creamy eggs and insist on always cooking them until they're rubberised, you don't deserve to eat scrambled eggs in the first place.) A perfect bracing Christmas brunch, this will keep you going until the late afternoon feast and will provide a useful lining for any alcohol that gets thrust at you in the middle of the day.

This year I was given Half-Canned Cooks, the fabulously rakish new cookbook from Lupe Pinto's Deli, the finest Mexican/Spanish/American deli for miles and an institution round our way, and I use the word 'institution' at least partly in the sense of a place where people sometimes behave in colourful and alarming ways. I've long owned a copy of their brilliant earlier book Two Cooks and a Suitcase, have eagerly read the new one and I'll be cooking from it in weeks to come.

Happy holidays, all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


In Dublin, where I come from, one of the traditional local dishes is a sausage, bacon and potato stew called Coddle. It consists of sausages, bacon (or ham), potatoes and onions, all boiled together in water. It's dishes like this that helped to prevent Dublin from becoming the internationally-renowned city of gastronomy that it isn't. It should come as no surprise that few Dubliners younger than fifty have ever eaten Coddle. I myself have only eaten it twice, very much in a spirit of research & development, and both times it was only because I cooked it myself; the first time to see what it tasted like, and the second time to check that it really was as disgusting as I remembered. It was.

Fortunately, for those that like one-pot meals and the taste of sausage, there is at least one great traditional sausage casserole out there: Spetsofai. I know it sounds like a special forces unit from a former Warsaw Pact country, but it is in fact a Greek sausage casserole of great gutsiness and character. (There are of course more great sausage dishes out there - choucroute garnie comes to mind - but Spetsofai is the only one I've tasted.) My wonderful Greek mother-in-law cooks it, and being a Greek woman who lives round the corner from an excellent butcher (John Saunderson's), she likes to buy a couple of every kind of sausage the butcher has and chuck 'em all in there in the spirit of variety.

Spetsofai is real rustic Greek food, and there is no one way to do it. I've seen a bunch of recipes on the internet but none of them looked as tasty as my mother-in-law's version. Spetsofai should be considered as a method, not as something written in stone (unlike, say, saltimbocca alla Romana, the recipe for which was actually agreed upon by a panel of Italian chefs in 1962). Here is Katy's recipe as I got it from her.

"I am crap at quantities, but will tell you what I got today: 2 Cumberland sausages, 3 pork and leek, 3 venison, 2 tomato something, 5 pork, and 6 chipolatas as an afterthought. Also, 3 green and 1 yellow pepper, and I had 1 1/2 at home.

Made my tomato sauce. Used 1 onion, not too big, bunch of spring onions, sauted them in butter, put in 1 tin chopped tomatoes, squeezed in some tomato puree, red wine, salt, pepper, sugar, oregano again and again, then decided to put in another tin of chopped tomatoes, more wine, more everything, then saw there was still some parsley and a few leaves of basil, (OK not in mint condition) on the window sill, so in they went, also put in ends of peppers which were sticking out (because they fry better if they are flat). Then fried peppers, then fried cut up sausages. Put everything in big enough pot (earthenware) in a moderate oven, and that was cooked for (I think) an hour. Until you arrived in any case."

So there you go. Here's the method in short:

1. Make your favourite rich tomato sauce, as if for pasta. Add lots of oregano, otherwise it's lacking in Greekness.
2. Fry 4-5 roughly chopped bell peppers and add them to the sauce.
3. Take more sausages than you think you want, cut them all in half, brown them well in olive oil and add them to the sauce. Note that my mother-in-law here used 15 regular sausages and 6 chipolatas in a dish meant for four adults and one small child (!). Granted that she likes to have leftovers: abundance is the key, here. Sausages are not very expensive, let's face it.
4. Bake it in the oven for an hour, preferably in an earthenware dish. Do it with the lid off. The top should be a bit scorched, and the sauce should be really thick.
5. Serve with whatever kind of carb you fancy - pasta, rice, some small roasted new potatoes are all good.

Eat this with sausage-loving friends. The overall impression should be of more sausages than anyone could really want to eat. But between you, you will eat them. A simple Greek salad of chopped tomato, cucumber and red onion is all you need on the side, and plenty of red wine.