Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Rice Pudding

How much debate can a handful of starch and a splash of dairy generate? Judging by the comments on Felicity Cloake's recent article about porridge on the Guardian website (250+ and still counting),  quite a few.

As I've mentioned in previous posts the simplest dishes often seem the most highly disputed.  Often if I'm writing about, say, an pasta dish, dim sum or tapas I will take some time to learn about its history, regional variations and any 'controversial' additions or omissions to keep things (reasonably) authentic. (Ketchup on your hot dog or Parmesan on a prawn risotto may get you a few funny looks in certain parts of the world.) But a traditional baked English rice pudding, despite it's many permutations, it's far easier to write about; quite simply I know what I like.

Leaving behind the horrors of school dinner slurry, rice pudding has become quite the trendy desert again.  While it's great to see it making a comeback, many of the versions I have eaten recently have been too 'fancy' for my unusually Puritan pudding tastes. Even some of the tradition recipes seem rather lavish; The rice pud Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham write about in the fabulously retro Prawn Cocktail Years is made with cream and whole milk, while Eliza Acton's traditional recipe, followed by Delia Smith no less, also sees the addition of egg yolks and butter.  All very delicious, but the richness of the dairy, plus the custardy texture provided by the eggs, is not the rice pudding of my childhood memories.

For me rice pudding would be a Sunday treat, made in a casserole dish that was a wedding present to my parents, and placed in a low oven to gently cook while the roast meat was resting. Just pudding rice, caster sugar, semi skimmed milk and a grating of nutmeg.  Comfortingly bland, sweet and  milky, a mixture of tender rice, blistered skin and a splash of cold milk to serve. As no one else in my family was too keen on it I usually got to scoff most of it myself, and somehow it managed to taste even better cold on a Monday.

Now I'm an adult I still love a bowl of simple rice pud on a Sunday, but the real change to my pudding eating habits is is something I never really enjoyed as a child: a big blob of jam dolloped in the middle. Strawberry if you've got it. And, thankfully there's no spelling homework after dinner now either!

Rice Pudding

100g pudding rice
50g caster sugar I use brown)
800ml milk (whole or semi-skimmed)
Fresh grated nutmeg
Bayleaf (optional)

To serve
Cold milk
Strawberry jam

Pre heat the oven to 150c and butter a heatproof baking dish.
Place rice sugar and milk into the dish, stir then add the bay leaf.
Grate fresh nutmeg over the suface of the pudding and place in the oven to bake for 1 1/2- 2 hours, stirring halfway through.  The top should be golden brown, and the rice should 'wobble' slightly in the middle when ready
Serve with a little extra cold milk and jam.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

B&K Salt Beef Bar, Crouch End

The Crouch End branch of the (nonkosher) B&K Salt Beef Bar is located on a rather nondescript part of the Uxbridge Road, about two miles from the first house I ever lived in. Although I've grown up and moved away, my Grandad still lives just down the road in Pinner, and it's nice to drive back over for a weekend jaunt, especially if it involves some good grub.

The last Sunday we spent in this neck of the woods the Ewing and I eschewed the usual roast for a very nice Sri Lankan meal in Wealdstone. Despite being stuffed with spicy food and Lion lager I insisted on stopping off at the B&K Salt beef Bar for takeaway sandwiches to keep us going later.

The place is split into two areas; two seating areas on either side and a takeaway counter at the back. When we arrived at, at about half two, the place was full of older couples sitting down to liver, latkes and turkey, with a stream of younger customers coming in for food to go.

The salt beef on rye with mustard and a pickle. Although this picture shows the deep layers of hand carved brisket, generously stuffed between the caraway-studded bread, it doesn't show the juicy wonder of the meat. Even when enjoyed cold, the beef was well marbled with fat that kept it moist and tender. Costing a mere four quid, plus a pound for the pickle, this was a fiver very well spent.

Daniel Young, of Young&Foodish, currently rates the original Edgware branch of B&K as the best salt beef sandwich in London. He also points out that this is one of the only places that still brine their own briskets, and I assume it the case here too.

The latkes; barely a day has gone by without thinking about these pillows of potatoey goodness. They are, without doubt, in the top 10 things I have put in my mouth this year. I can't actually express in words how monumental these were (even eaten cold the next morning), so you'll just have to go and try them for yourselves.

The lokshen pudding, a Jewish grandmother classic made with with fruit juice, raisins and noodles.  This was my first lokshen experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although quite unlike anything I've eaten before, it managed to be a surprisingly moreish combination between creamy and fruity.

The apple strudel: I rate all apple strudel's against my mum's version, made for her legendary 80's dinner parties, and while this couldn't quite live up to those high standards it was still pretty good. The pastry was a nice balance of crispy and squidgy, the apples sharp and tangy and the whole thing was spiced nicely with cinnamon.

Service was very friendly; the two young guys behind the counter were full of banter, despite being pretty busy, and there is there is a welcoming, lively feeling about the place that makes you want to linger. If you want to stay and soak up the atmosphere then plates of food, including roast meats with mash and chopped liver and egg salad are available.  Next time I've got my eye on some of the tongue, with a mountain of latkes on the side. With a slice of the baked cheesecake for pudding if there's room.

And as well as feshly made sandwiches, meats (including tongue, turkey and roast beef) and salads are available to takeaway by the pound. The B&K also sells loaves of rye, meaning you can buy both your meat and bread together, for DIY sandwiches through the week.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Stir up Sunday - Chocolate Orange Fruit Cake

Stir up Sunday is traditionally the last Sunday in Advent, where families would come home from church and make their plum puddings and mincemeat in time for Christmas. Now days things are a little different. Instead of church most of us seem to spend our Sunday mornings recovering from the night before, while watching repeats of Match of the Day and X Factor; and instead of stirring up our puddings, over 90% of us will now buy a ready made version from the supermarket.

I experienced a Christmas pudding disaster a few years ago when my, slightly worse for wear, mum placed the (shop bought) pud in the steamer, and then promptly forgot about it.  We were alerted to the impending disaster by the acrid smell of burning plastic, and rushed out to find the steamer boiled dry, with the dried out and burnt pudding welded to the bottom. As I love a good old Xmas pud, flamed with brandy and served with gallons of custard this, was right up there (along with not getting the deluxe version of Castle Greyskull), as one of Christmas day's darker moments.

We're off to Wiltshire for Christmas this year, so instead of lugging my own pudding supplies with me I decided to make a Christmas cake that could be fed with booze and munched on through out the coming weeks. To be entirely accurate the Ewing made the cake while I made (un)helpful suggestions and generally got in the way. From a Nigella recipe that blends a boiled fruit cake with a little twist, the flavour combinations are not too outré for the traditionalists, and it's perfect if you don't want thick layers of Polyfila-like icing to peel off every mouthful.

I first made this cake three years ago, the first Christmas cake I had baked, so I can attest to its simplicity. At the time the Ewing was studying for exams, meaning I was in sole charge of the Christmas cooking. Although I stuck (mostly) to the recipe, in the end I had to shut the kitchen door to prevent her noticing that I was tipping honey in straight from the jar and 'estimating' how much booze to use.  The fact that it was a success shows how hard it is to really mess up cakes like this. The biggest problem seemed to come from the cooking times, it seemed to take at least half an hour longer than specified on both occasions. That, and the fact that when the Ewing double lined the tin the extra layer of brown paper ended up touching the oven roof, setting alight and setting off the fire alarm.  Luckily the cake was too dark to notice any scorched bits, and a little ash never hurt anyone...

Chocolate Fruit Cake
350g dried soft prunes chopped
250g raisins
125g currants
175g unsalted butter, softened
175g dark muscovado sugar
175ml honey
125ml coffee liqueur
2 oranges, zested and juiced
1 teaspoon mixed spice
2 tablespoons good quality cocoa
3 free-range eggs, beaten
150g plain flour
75g ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

-Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).
-Line the sides and bottom of an 8 by 3 1/2-inch deep, round loose-bottomed cake tin with a layer of  baking parchment. When lining the tin with the parchment, cut the material into a strip twice as high as the tin itself; the height of the strips protects the cake from catching on the outside of the tin.
-Place the fruit, butter, sugar, honey, coffee liqueur, orange zest and juice, mixed spice and cocoa into a large wide saucepan. Heat the mixture until it reaches a gentle boil, stirring the mixture as the butter melts. Let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and leave to stand for 30 minutes.
-After 30 minutes, the mixture will have cooled a little. Add the eggs, flour, ground almonds, baking powder and baking soda, and mix well with a wooden spoon or spatula until the ingredients have combined.
-Carefully pour the fruitcake mixture into the lined cake tin. Transfer the cake tin to the oven and bake for 1 3/4 to 2 hours, or until the top of the cake is firm but will has a shiny and sticky look. At this point, if you insert a sharp knife into the middle of the cake, the cake should still be a little uncooked in the middle
-Place the cake on a cooling rack. Once the cake has cooled, remove it from the tin.

Nigella decorates this with chocolate covered coffee beans and gold stars and glitter. This might be a step to far with the Christmas kitsch, even for me. I've just gone for the simple sprig of holly approach, but feel free to wheel out the Christmas decorations. You could traditionally ice it if the fancy takes you.

Because this cake is it's extra moist and sticky, it probably won't keep quite as long as a traditional fruit cake (not usually a problem in our house...). Kept well wrapped in an airtight tin it should still be fine for at least 2/3 weeks. It freezes pretty well too.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Baked pasta dishes are perfect as the weather turns colder and the nights draw in. They are also a cinch to make, and very versatile too; from the good old student standards of tuna or sausages to ragu, chicken, spicy pork, veg and even leftover chili or stew. Just mix through some cooked pasta, top with breadcrumbs and/or cheese and stick it in the oven until golden and bubbling.

When I've got a little more time to spend in the kitchen (and can face the extra pans to wash up) nothing can beat a bake with a thick layer of creamy bechamel laying on toplike a big edible duvet. This version is the Greek twist on the Italian classic pasticcio di pasta, or lasagne al forno. As well as using hollow noodles, or bucatini, instead of flat sheets of pasta (making for an impressive looking cut through in the finished dish), the dish shows its Hellinic influence with the use of cinnamon and nutmeg to spice the ragu, and a good amount of Greek oregano.  Ground lamb can also be used instead of beef. 

Although it may take a few pots and pans, and a little bit of stirring, it's a very simple dish that's well worth the effort.  Perfect for entertaining big crowds or lazy winter nights in front of the telly. It's also a good idea to make more than needed, any leftovers will reheat very well, and it seems to taste even better over the next few days.

Meat sauce
500g minced beef or lamb
Olive oil
2 medium onions finely chopped
2 clove of garlic finely chopped
1 tin of tomatoes
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 tsp oregano
Grating of nutmeg

Bechamel sauce
50g butter
50g flour
500ml milk
125g ricotta (optional)
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
400g long macaroni/bucatini
Olive oil
100g Kefalotiri or Pecorino cheese, grated

Fry the mince in a casserole until browned, drain and set aside.
Add a little oil to the casserole and gently cook the onions and garlic until soft.  Add the tomatoes, cinnamon, oregano, salt, pepper, browned meat and half a cup of water.  Cover the pot and simmer gently for about an hour an a half.
Meanwhile make the bechamel sauce.  Make a roux by melting the butter in a pan, adding the flour and gently cooking out for a few minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking thoroughly to prevent lumps and stir until thickened.  Add nutmeg, salt, pepper and ricotta, if using.  Set aside.
When the meat sauce is nearly ready preheat the oven to 180c and cook the pasta until just al dente.
Drain and add a little olive oil to stop it sticking.
Layer an ovenproof dish with a layer of pasta, followed by a layer of ragu and then another layer of pasta.  Finish with the becahamel sauce, the grated cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.
Bake in the preheated oven for 20-30 minutes until the top is crispy and golden and it is hot throughout.
Serve with a green salad and crusty bread.
It can also be made in advance, up to the final browning and reheating, and kept refrigerated for a couple of days until needed.  Heat in the oven for a little longer, (45-60 mins) and check the middle is piping hot before serving.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Apple and Rye Trifle

Most Thursdays the Ewing stops by the Flour Power City Bakery stall at Wendover Farmer's Market for a loaf or two (and their amazing banana cake if I'm really lucky).  All their bread is great, but my favourite is still the original Hoxton Rye Levain; a 100% rye sourdough with a dark, rich crust that's perfect for toasting and makes great Camembert and cranberry chutney sandwiches.

Although the rye bread will last for ages there always seems to be a forgotten crust that becomes impervious to even the sharpest serrated knife.  Usually the Ewing saves me from sawing through a digit by soaking any leftover bread for the birds, but reading both the Modern Pantry and Scandilicious cookbooks recently showed there was another way to salvage those last, forgotten slices of loaf.

Whizzed into rough breadcrumbs in the food processor, then caramelised with brown sugar, and maybe a few caraway seeds, the leftover rye bread can be mixed into an ice cream base, sprinkled over fruit or layered up in this Nordic influenced trifle using some seasonal British apples.  Although perfect for pud, it also makes a good breakfast too, with plain yogurt in place of the cream.

Apple and Rye Trifle with Caraway
Serves 4

4 Bramley apples
2 tbsp brown sugar
Half a lemon
1/2 tsp cinnamon
200g yogurt
200mls double/whipping cream or plain yogurt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
150g rye bread
2tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp caraway seeds

Peel and core and slice the apples, sprinkle with a little lemon juice and place in a saucepan.
Add the sugar and cinnamon and a splash of water, and cook on a gentle heat until the fruit is soft.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Whip cream until it forms soft peaks, then gently stir in vanilla extract.
Blitz rye bread into rough crumbs in a food processor. Gently heat butter in a frying pan, add breadcrumbs, sugar and caraway and stir frequently until golden and caramelised. Place into a bowl and allow to cool.
To assemble place alternate layers of fruit, cream and crumbs into individual bowls or glasses, finishing with a layer of crumbs.
Serve immediately, while the crumbs are still crisp and crunchy.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Hanger Steak with Barkham Blue Hollandaise

Last week I was rather excited to receive a box of Highland beef from the East London Steak Co.  As well as a selection of Wintery braising cuts I also order a kilogram of the French bistro classic, onglet. This interesting cut is finally beginning to see a bit of a Renaissance over here. Previously better known as butcher's steak, as it would be held back for a treat when the steer was being cut up, we are finally beginning to see that with some careful cooking this piece of beef can be some of the best tasting steak found on a cow.

The Americans know onglet as Hanger steak, as it 'hangs' down from the diaphragm of the steer. The fact it is exposed means that the onglet will age quicker than other, more protected, cuts, and a good onglet should be dark red in colour. Previously, due to its tough nature if overcooked, the 'offally' flavours in the meat (it nestles between the kidneys), and the fact there is only one steak per beast, it was not seen as worth the effort to butcher individually and would often be used as stewing beef or mince. Luckily good butchers are now seeing it's appeal as a cheaper piece of steak that has as much, if not more, flavour as some of the better known, and far pricier, cuts.

Hangar steak has a thickly grained texture that makes it perfect for marinading and quick grilling in dishes such as Korean bulgogi or Mexican fajitas. It also works well prepared in a simple French bistro style; cooked rare to medium rare and served sliced against the grain with a sauce such as red wine and shallot or Bearnaise, and some frites or a green salad.

After spending the morning chopping, slicing and dividing my way through bags of ground beef, chopped chuck, shin and ox cheeks (the postman got a nice surprise as I opened the door adorned with dried blood and lumps of mince) I felt as if I deserved a little cook's perk. With memories of my recent Hawksmoor Guildhall lunch fresh in my mind, and the Hawksmoor at Home cookbook sitting on my kitchen shelf, I decided to really treat myself and whip up a version of their Stilton hollandaise to go with my steak.

As I had a little nub of Barkham Blue (a great cow's milk cheese, made locally in Berkshire) at the back of the fridge I decided to use that instead of the Stilton, and scaled the quantities of the original recipe down by half (even I have limits on how much liquid butter I can manage for lunch). Nigel Slater writes that Hollandaise should be the consistency of custard, but there is some debate whether that's crème anglaise or tinned Bird's. I prefer a stiffer sauce, if it seems a little thin at first the cheese should help thicken it.

The steak was left to reach room temperature, seasoned with Maldon smoked salt and black pepper and seared simply in a ferociously hot pan for a few minutes each side. Ideally I could have probably let the meat rest for a minute or longer before cutting it into thick, juicy slices, but by then I was too impatient to wait. In a flash of inspiration I used the chopped shallots, discarded from the infused white wine vinegar used in the hollandaise sauce, as a basis of a dressing for some simple watercress.

Hangar Steak with Barkham Blue Hollandaise

Hangar steak - approx. 250g per person
Sea salt (use a 50:50 mix of ordinary and smoked if possible)
Freshly ground pepper

Blue Cheese Hollandaise (recipe from Hawksmoor at Home)
(serves 4-6)
3 shallots, peeled and finely diced
100ml white wine vinegar
a few black peppercorns, crushed
A sprig of tarragon
250g unsalted butter
4 egg yolks
150g Stilton cubed and rind removed (I used Barkham Blue)
Maldon sea salt
Tabasco sauce

Watercress or rocket leaves to serve

First prepare the flavoured vinegar.  put the shallots, vinegar, pepper and tarragon into a small saucepan and simmer until reduced by half.  Cool, cover and leave to infuse for a couple of hours or overnight.  Strain before using (I used the shallots, mixed with a little olive oil to dress some watercress).
In another pan heat the butter over a low heat, then let it stand until the white solids rise to the top.  Skim them off and strain the butter through a piece of muslin or a fine sieve.
Place a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of gently simmering water, add the egg yolks, the vinegar reduction (you should have 50ml) and two tablespoons of water and whisk together.  Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the warm clarified butter in a steady stream until it is thoroughly incorporated and the sauce is thick and glossy. 
Season to taste with salt and a few drops of Tabasco sauce.
Crumble in the cubed Stilton.  The sauce will keep for up to an hour if kept in a pan in a warm place.

If there was such a thing as the perfect lunch then chunks of full flavoured, juicy steak, with just the right amount of chew; buttery rich hollandaise, punctuated by the salty nuggets of blue cheese, and a peppery, bright salad of watercress with shallot dressing might just be it. Just add a glass of rough vin rouge and bon apetit!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Ham Bone Beans

To my mind there is little better to warm frozen fingers and toes after an evening huddled round the bonfire than a steaming bowlful of spicy, smoky ham and beans.  Not only is it a porky, pulse-laden joy to eat, it is also very easy to make and economical too.  The perfect wintery dish to stick on the back of the stove to quietly bubble away while you get on with other things.  Covered in the fridge it should last for four or five days (not that it ever lasts that long in our house), making it perfect to reheat for a quick  midweek lunch or supper.

This dish is based on the Boston Baked Beans from Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall's Meat book.  It's a clever and frugal  recipe as it features the humble haricot bean as the star of the show, with the meat in a supporting role providing extra richness and depth. 

The original 'Beantown' version would have featured salt pork and molasses; here I have used the, very similar, black treacle and the end bone of a Parma ham,  picked up cheaply at my local Italian deli. The cured meat adds a rich salty/sweetness, but Hugh's recipe uses uncured pork belly, so I guess the choice is yours.  If you do use cured/salt bacon or pork then check before seasoning, as it will be much saltier than if you use green bacon or uncured pork. 

Ham Bone Beans

500g dried haricot beans
Meaty ham bone or piece of pork belly/bacon (approx. 300/400g) cut into 5cm cubes.
50g soft brown sugar
3 tbsp black treacle/molasses
2 tbsp English mustard
4 cloves
4 small onions, halved
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp tomato puree
A couple of bay leaves
Fresh black pepper

Soak the haricot beans overnight in cold water.
Drain and rinse beans, place in an ovenproof casserole, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil.  Boil hard for 10-15 minutes, than reduce heat and simmer for about an hour, until the beans are soft.
Pre-heat oven to 140c.
Stir sugar, treacle, mustard, tomato puree and Worcester sauce into beans. Stud the cloves into the onions and add along with the ham bone/pork/bacon, bay leaves and pepper.
Place lid on casserole and bake the beans in the oven for 2-3 hours.  Stir mixture, check for seasoning and then return to the oven, unlidded, for another hour until the sauce has thickened.
If using a ham bone, remove, shred the meat and return to the beans.

As well as being fab on its own, with crusty bread or piled atop a buttery baked potato, it also makes a good breakfast addition. Serve it as part of a full-on full English, or as a pimped up version of beans on toast.