Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Tweeting Christmas recipes: the fun, the festivities, and the failure

My cousin's trifle
My cousin Sarah's mulberry and raspberry Christmas trifle, which
 I whipped outside to photograph while the custard was being made.
I became a Twitter fan (oh, okay, a hopeless addict) this year, and this is the first Christmas in the four years I've been writing this blog that I have had the opportunity to engage, in real time, with people who've decided to give my recipes a whirl. 

(And what fun I had over Christmas! I joined my extended family in Franschhoek to prepare an extravaganza of a feast, to which we each contributed a course or dish; the trifle-in-the-making pictured left was one of two desserts made by my talented cousin Sarah Walters.)

I can't tell you what a kick it gave me to log in to Twitter over the past week to find many questions, comments and photographs posted by readers of this blog.

Not to say that I wasn't gnawing my knuckles at the thought of people putting faith in my recipes. I'm keenly aware that no matter how carefully I formulate and test a recipe, there is always a chance of failure: I might have made a mistake in writing down quantities, or left out a vital step, or neglected to explain the method clearly. (I experienced a spectacular failure myself when my huge Christmas gammon fell to soggy shreds in the pot last Thursday, but more about that later in this post).

It is hugely rewarding for me, as a recipe developer, to see my dishes being cooked by real people in real kitchens, and on such an important festive occasion. My Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke was the recipe most people made, with others trying my festive turkey stuffing, my Layered Christmas Ice-Cream Cake with White Chocolate and Berriesand several older recipes for salads, including the perennially popular Marinated Mushrooms.

Here are some of the pictures that were tweeted by readers who'd made the Coke-glazed gammon: don't they look scrumptious?

Glazed Christmas Gammon
Some of the gammon photographs tweeted by readers of this blog!
And here's a picture sent to me by Steve Mabbutt (one of this blog's most loyal and informed readers, and a cook of note), of his mise en place for the gammon:

Our own festive feast (traditionally served on Christmas Eve) was just wonderful. It's so special to come together as a family to cook, laugh and talk, to eat, drink and be merry, isn't it?

Even though we are (mostly) heathens of note, I've always found Christmas Eve to be the most magical and merry night of the year. Twinkling lights, frosty champagne glasses, glowing candles, presents rustling under the tree, kids whirling in giddy circles, spicy aromas drifting from the kitchen...

My family, starting the feast.
And then, as the evening blossoms into its fullness, singing of carols, snapping of crackers, stirring of gravy, carving of turkey, munching of chocolate, filling of Christmas stockings, putting-out of milk and biscuits for Father Christmas, and all the other treasured family rituals that make those marvellous and important memories.

And then there is (of course) the food. This year, my family pulled out the stops to produce a humdinger of a feast. My sister Sophie produced a seriously delicious dip of smoky aubergines, garlic and toasted pine nuts.

My other sister Karen roped in the kids to make what is always the star attraction of the feast: little pork sausages wrapped in bacon, with fresh rosemary. My sainted mother glided back and forth, with her usual poise and enthusiasm, dishing out champagne, encouragement and hugs to her adoring children and grandchildren.

The winning dish - in fact, one of the best things I've tasted this year - was a beautiful starter of smoked trout made by my uncle David.  In this truly gorgeous recipe (recipe here) piping-hot sesame oil is trickled over a bed of Franschhoek smoked trout, then topped with miso, soy sauce, black sesame seeds, fresh ginger, garlic, caperberries, dabs of home-made mayonnaise and great dollops of pink and black fish roe.  This was served on exquisite plates hand-made by David, each one embossed with our names.

Bacon-wrapped pork chipolatas, ready for the oven
 My sister Karen's pork chipolatas, ready for the oven
The starter was followed by a traditional turkey course, as demanded by the British-born men of my family (three brothers-in-law: a Scot, a Welshman and an Englishman). We made two turkeys for 20 people (each turkey with its own stuffing), plus potatoes roasted in duck fat, peas, gravy, bacon-wrapped chipolatas and a green salad. For dessert, my pudding-queen-of-a-cousin Sarah and her man Jim produced a mulberry and raspberry trifle and an incredibly delicious Nigel Slater cheesecake.

And finally: my Christmas-feast disaster. I bought an enormous (4.3 kg) bone-in gammon from a local supermarket chain that collapsed into sodden shreds when I cooked it.  I won't name the supermarket until they've responded to my complaint, but I will say that I'm annoyed and frustrated at having wasted both money and time on a clearly inferior piece of meat.

The joint looked beautiful, all right, when I bought it (it's the same joint, from the same supermarket, shown in Steve's mise en place picture, above) but within half an hour of my placing it in a flavoured, spiced stock, it began to swell alarmingly.  Some three-and-a-half hours of simmering later (well short of the cooking time recommended on the packaging) it began to disintegrate into tasteless grey shreds. I couldn't save it, because it fell to pieces as I fished it out of the stock.

All was not lost, though, because a foraging party found another gammon from another supermarket (this time, in Franschhoek) which held together as it boiled, and tasted delicious.

I've cooked many gammons in my life, always using the same cooking times, and this is the first time I've ever seen a piece of meat collapse in such a spectacular fashion. I fretted briefly over whether I'd done something wrong, or miscalculated the cooking time, but when the aforementioned Steve told me he'd had exactly the same disaster with his gammon, I realised that the fault lay with the ingredient, and not the cook  (Whew!)

I will get back to you with details when I receive a reply to the email of complaint I've sent the supplier.

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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Festive Turkey Stuffing with Green Peppercorns, Pork Sausage, Apple and Thyme

I've used squashed green peppercorns as an ingredient for my turkey stuffing this Christmas not only because I want a change from the usual apricot-bacon-nut theme, but also because 2010 has been my personal Year of Pepper. I've always been partial to this splendid, much-adored spice - the king of spices, don't you agree? - but in recent months my love of pepper has developed into something of a craving.
Festive Turkey Stuffing with Green Peppercorns, Pork Sausage, Apple and Thyme
Image from Wikipedia Creative Commons
I just can't get enough of the dark, warm, aromatic, citrussy scent and taste of peppercorns. White pepper, in particular, has featured in several of my recipes this year - it's my personal blogging mission to revive this rather neglected and unfashionable ingredient - and I am also very fond of green peppercorns in brine.

In this recipe, I've combined crushed green peppercorns with grated fresh apple, pork-sausage meat, breadcrumbs, thyme, lemon zest, onions, garlic and nuts to create a light, flavoursome stuffing that I think will be a good accompaniment to my run-of-the-mill supermarket turkey. I can't offer you a photograph, because I haven't stuffed the turkey yet, but I have fried up a few small patties of the stuffing to check the balance of flavours and the seasoning, and I'm very happy with the result.

I've used chopped, lightly toasted Brazil nuts in this stuffing because I love their slightly bitter, woodlandy taste - a bit like chewing on a branch, I always think - but you could quite easily use any similar crunchy nuts, such as macadamias or cashews. If you're making the stuffing in advance, as I've done, add the toasted nuts just before you stuff the turkey.

I found that this stuffing held together so well that I didn't need to add any egg. But if your stuffing mixture doesn't come together smartly when you squeeze a ball of it in your fist, add a beaten egg.

For the breadcrumbs, use slices of white or brown bread (or rolls) that are at least three days old. If your breadcrumbs are too soft and fluffy, the stuffing will be stodgy and pasty. Tear the bread slices into tatters and whizz them up, in batches, in a food processor or liquidizer.

Festive Turkey Stuffing with Green Peppercorns, Pork Sausage, Apple and Thyme

4 tsp (20 ml) olive oil
1½ cups very finely chopped onion (a very large onion, or two average-sized ones)
2 cloves fresh garlic, very finely chopped
the finely grated zest and juice of a lemon
2 red apples, cored
6 pork sausages (Eskort or Woolworths)
4 large sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves stripped (about 2 tablespoons of leaves)
4 tsp (20 ml) Madagascar green peppercorns
1 tsp (5 ml) flaky sea salt
5 cups (very loosely packed) fresh breadcrumbs
100 g chopped Brazil nuts (or similar; see my notes above)

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a medium flame. Add the finely chopped onions and the garlic, turn down the heat and cook very gently for 7-10 minutes, tossing now and again, until the onion is soft and transluscent. Don't allow the onion or garlic to brown.

Place the lemon zest and juice in a large mixing bowl. Grate the apple, skin and all, on the coarse side of a cheese grater, and tip the gratings directly into the bowl containing the lemon juice. Toss well so that the apple is coated with lemon juice. Squeeze the filling out of the pork sausages (discard the sausage skin) and add it to the mixing bowl, along with the thyme leaves and the cooked onion and garlic.

Put the green peppercorns in a mortar with the salt and pound them to a rough paste. (Or, if you don't have a mortar, squash them on a chopping board using a rolling pin or a heavy-based pot.) Add the pepper paste to the mixing bowl. Using your hands, squeeze and squish the contents of the mixing bowl together. Now tip all the fresh breadcrumbs into the bowl and, using a fork or your fingertips, lightly mix until combined. Don't overwork the mixture, or it will turn into wallpaper paste.

Toss the Brazil nuts in a hot, dry frying pan, over a medium flame, until lightly toasted. Lightly mix the nuts into the stuffing mixture.

At this point, it's a good idea to test the stuffing for flavour and seasoning. Take a small ball of the stuffing, press it into a little patty and fry it in hot oil until lightly browned. Taste the patty, add more salt if necessary, and then cover and place in the fridge until you're ready to stuff your turkey.

Makes enough stuffing for a large turkey. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Roasted Pressed Beetroot with Sour Cream, for a Christmas buffet

The simplest recipe you can imagine, using only a few humble ingredients. Beetroot is slow-roasted overnight with some woody herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper, pressed for a several hours in a mould, then tipped out and served, oxblood-red and darkly delicious, with a cool topping of sour cream and snipped fresh chives.
Oven-Roasted Pressed Beetroot
What I wanted from this vegetable dish was that it should look as evocatively festive as a dark, fruity Christmas pudding, but at the same time have a pure earthy taste, with not a hint of the aggressive vinegar that so often accompanies beetroot dishes.

Oven-Roasted Pressed BeetrootThis slow-roasting method draws the moisture out of the beetroot and concentrates its flavours beautifully, while a simple accompaniment of sour cream, natural yoghurt or crème fraîche adds a hint of acidity.

If you like your beetroot with real zip, by all means add lemon juice, lemon zest, horseradish, a little garlic, or whatever takes your fancy, to either the beetroot or the topping. But please, not Balsamic vinegar. It's far too strong a flavour for what is quite a subtle dish.

This looks festive if made in round pudding bowl, but you could use a non-stick loaf tin. If you're not confident about the beetroot coming out in one piece, line the bowl or tin with clingfilm.

Keep the dish at room temperature, if you can, and add the sour cream at the last minute. The first time I made this, I used yoghurt and put the leftovers in the fridge overnight. The next morning, the yoghurt topping had turned a fetching Barbie-pink colour.

The fresh little beetroot leaves in the picture are from a mini-crop I've been picking from for weeks now, and they come from a single, elderly beetroot that I planted after I found it sprouting in the vegetable bin. I don't know why it hasn't occurred to me to do this before: if I'd planted six old beets, I'd have overflowing salad bowls by now. (I did stand the bulb with its roots in water for a week before I planted it; see picture above.)

Oven-Roasted Pressed Beetroot with Sour Cream
6 large beetroot
extra-virgin olive oil for sprinkling
a sprig each of fresh thyme and rosemary
two bay leaves
sea salt and milled black pepper

To top:
sour cream, or yoghurt, or crème fraîche
snipped fresh chives

Oven-Roasted Pressed BeetrootPreheat the oven to 160°C. Trim the leafy tops off the beetroot, leaving 2 cm of stalk intact. Wipe the beetroot with a cloth, but don't wash them. Cut the beetroot in half. Put them on a double layer of foil, sprinkle with some olive oil and dust with salt and pepper. Place the bay leaves and the sprigs of rosemary and thyme on top. Close the parcel with a double pleat, place on a baking sheet and bake for two hours at 160°C. Now open the parcel by peeling back the foil. Turn the oven to its lowest setting - 50°C is ideal - and leave overnight, or until the beetroot are very tender and slightly shrunken (see picture below).

Remove the packet from the oven, discard the herbs and allow to cool.

Oven-Roasted Pressed BeetrootTrim the beetroot of stalks and roots, slip off their skins, and cut into large cubes. Add more salt, if necessary, and pile the cubes into an oiled bowl just big enough to hold them all. Cover the surface with foil or clingfilm, and then with a saucer or lid that fits neatly into the bowl. (If you're using a loaf tin, cut out a piece of heavy cardboard of the right size and cover it with tin foil). Weigh down with something rather heavy - few stacked tins, or large stone or brick - and allow to stand at room temperature for at least eight hours, or overnight.

Peel off the foil, and, using a sharp knife, gently loosen the edges of the pressed beetroot. Place a large platter on top of the bowl and invert. Tap or shake the bowl to release.  Top with a flurry of sour cream and snipped fresh chives.

Serves 4-6 as a side dish

Oven-Roasted Pressed Beetroot
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Monday, 20 December 2010

Festive Phyllo Crackers with a Spicy Plum and Almond Filling

A tart, sweet, spicy filling of fresh plums, grated apples and almonds gives these little phyllo-pastry parcels a festive air. They're good served warm with whipped cream, and are fairly quick and easy to make.

Festive Phyllo Crackers with a Spicy Plum and Almond Filling

I came up with this Christmas snack after I cleaned out my fridge and found a left-over pack of phyllo pastry that was still perfectly good. (Phyllo tends to grow blue spots if it skulks in the fridge for too long, but if you wrap it and seal it well, it lasts for several weeks.) I also spotted a few juicy plums that were too soft for eating, and these merry little crackers were the result.

The ground almonds are there to soak up the excess juice from the plums and apples, and the slivered ones to provide a nutty crunch.

Festive Phyllo Crackers with a Spicy Plum and Almond Filling

6 sheets of phyllo pastry
melted butter for brushing
white sugar for sprinkling
icing sugar for finishing

For the filling:
4 Tbsp (60 ml) currants (or raisins or sultanas)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) brandy
1 Tbsp (15 ml) boiling water
80 ml slivered almonds
the finely grated zest of half a lemon
the juice of half a lemon
2 red apples, cored
4 juicy red plums, stoned and cubed
80 ml ground almonds
½ tsp cinnamon
a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
a pinch of ground cloves
½ cup (125 ml) icing sugar
1 Tbsp (15 ml) butter

First make the filling. Soak the currants in the brandy and boiling water for 15 minutes. Put the slivered almonds in a dry frying pan and toast them lightly, tossing frequently. Set aside. Put the lemon juice and zest into a large saucepan, and grate the apples directly into the pan. Toss well to coat and add the cubed plums, ground almonds, spices, icing sugar and the currants plus their soaking liquid. Mix well.

Cook, over a brisk heat, for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened and is beginning to pull away from the edges of the pan. You'll know when it's ready when you smell caramel and see the edges beginning to turn golden. Stir in the butter and slivered almonds and set aside to cool.

Heat the oven to 180ºC.

Unroll the phyllo pastry and remove six sheets. Place a sheet of pastry on a piece of greaseproof paper or a clean tea towel (cover the remaining sheets with a damp cloth) and brush all over with melted butter. Sprinkle with a little granulated white sugar. Place another sheet on top of the first, brush with butter and sprinkle with sugar. Now add a third sheet of pastry, but don't brush with butter.

With the long side of the stack of pastry facing you, and using a sharp knife or a pair of scissors, cut the pastry sheets in half vertically, and then into thirds horizontally, so you have six equal rectangles. Place about two tablespoons of the filling on each stack, brush the far edge with melted butter, and roll into a cylinder. Press down gently to seal, and then crimp and push in the ends to make a cracker shape. Trim the ends with a pair of scissors. Repeat the process with the remaining three sheets of pastry. Place the crackers on a non-stick baking sheet and brush all over with melted butter.

Bake at 180ºC for 10-12 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and golden.

Dust with icing sugar and serve warm.

Makes 12 crackers Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Layered Christmas Ice-Cream Cake with White Chocolate and Berries

Here's an extravagant, multi-layered ice-cream cake that looks festive, tastes dreamy and packs - at least in one of its layers - a happy Christmassy punch. It's easy to make, and I guarantee it will wow a crowd, from oldies who love traditional fruity, boozy flavours to kids who crave chocolates and sweeties. In short, I've designed this cake to please everyone.

Layered Christmas Ice-Cream Cake with White Chocolate and Berries

A few years back, someone came up with the idea of crumbling a Christmas pudding and mixing it with vanilla icecream: a good idea, all right (no one who lives in a hot climate wants to eat hot Christmas pud) but the recipe had an inherent flaw - kids didn't like it. This ice cream lets you slice off the bits you know the kids will devour, and keep the fruity, brandied layer all to yourself.

Instead of Christmas pud, I've used squashed-up mince pies.  Please trust me on this - it works - but do buy mince pies with a nice, crumbly, shortbready pastry.

The layers have something for everyone.
The casing, which consists of chocolate modelling paste,  is a bit fiddly to make, sets rock-hard in the freezer and is a tough nut to crack (and eat). It's there to look lovely, and to contain the berries, but if you don't feel up to making it, leave it out. Instead, pile whipped cream (look, it is Christmas) all over the top of the cake and stack the berries high. Liquid glucose is available from specialty baking shops.

I wanted to include popping candy in this cake (à la Heston Blumenthal) but I found that the minute the icecream softened slightly, the little granules started to explode. You could, however, mix them into the modelling paste, where they will remain stable until stuck into a small, hungry mouth. (And yes, I tested this.)

Use a very large, deep, non-stick round baking tin for this cake. If you don't have one large enough, use a cake tin (the sort you store cakes in) that you have lined with  several sheets of clingfilm.  Start the cake up to a week in advance of your feast, but keep it covered in the freezer to prevent it from absorbing freezer whiffs.

You need a very large flat platter for this cake. If you don't have one, use your glass microwave turntable, as I did (but I take no responsibility if it gets broken during the festivities!).

You can use any combination of nuts, fruits, sweeties and liqueurs for this cake. Rum-soaked raisins would be nice, as would cherries in brandy. Don't add too much alcohol to the mix, though, as it can inhibit the freezing of ice cream.

The white-chocolate collar is entirely optional.

Layered Christmas Ice Cream Cake with White Chocolate and Berries

2 x two-litre tubs of  real (dairy) vanilla ice cream

For the first layer:
4 mince pies
3 Tbsp (45 ml) brandy
100g chopped pecan nuts, or mixed nuts of your choice
½ cup (125 ml) cream, whipped until firm

For the second layer:
120 g chocolate chips, or a chopped-up bar of your favourite chocolate
2 Tbsp (30 ml) good-quality instant coffee
3 Tbsp (45 ml) cocoa powder
½ cup (125 ml) cream, whipped until firm

For the third layer:
4 Crunchies (chocolate-covered honeycomb bars)
6 ginger biscuits, crumbled
3 Tbsp honey, slightly warmed so that it's runny
½ cup (125 ml) cream, whipped until firm

For the white chocolate:
250 g white chocolate
150 g liquid glucose

For the topping:
Assorted berries, fresh or frozen, or a mixture of both

Make the first layer. Take two-thirds (about 1.3 litres) of the first tub of icecream, place in a large mixing bowl and allow to soften slightly. Crumble the mince pies and add to the ice cream along with the brandy and nuts. Mix quickly and thoroughly.  Fold in the whipped cream. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin (see above) and smooth the top with a spatula. Allow to freeze until firm.

Repeat the same process with the next two layers, using 1.3 l of ice cream at a time, and allowing each one to freeze until firm.

To remove the cake from its tin, briefly warm the sides (click here to find out how to do this easily) and invert onto a large platter. If the surface of the cake looks crinkled as a result of lining the tin with clingfilm (and if you're not making the chocolate case), smooth with a heated spatula.  Put the cake back in the freezer.

Now make the casing. Melt the white chocolate in a metal or glass bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Don't allow it to overheat, as white chocolate is tricky and tends to 'seize'. Gently heat the glucose in another pot (or in the microwave) until it is slightly runny. Remove the chocolate from the heat, tip in the glucose and beat hard, until the mixture forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pan. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes, or until it's cool enough to handle, but still pliable. Roll the modelling paste into a long sausage and place it between two sheets of baking paper. Roll out into a long strip that is a little taller than your cake, and long enough to wrap all the way round it.

You need to work quickly here, and to apply very firm pressure. If the paste becomes too stiff, fold it, still in the baking paper, in half, and place it in the microwave for a few seconds at a time to warm up.

When the strip is long enough, trim one edge with a sharp knife to make a straight line. Leave the other edge wavy.  Remove the cake from the freezer and wrap the chocolate paste around it, wavy side up. Seal the join with light pressure.  Replace in the freezer.

Just before serving, pile the berries into the centre of the cake.  Use a very hot knife (dip it in boiling water, or heat over a flame) to slice the cake.

Serves 12

Note: The idea for this chocolate casing comes from the June 2008 issue of BBC Good Food magazine. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Monday, 13 December 2010

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke

I've recently updated, retested and rephotographed this recipe - one of the most popular on my blog  - for the fourth issue of Crush Online!, and here it is again in all its gammony glory.

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke.

It seems to me that there is a glut of pork in South Africa right now, as the hams and gammons I've seen in the shops are astonishingly inexpensive. I bought a 2.6kg gammon last week for just over a hundred rands, and very good it was too. Scroll to the end of this post, and I'll give you some great tips for stretching a gammon like this over two - or even three - meals.

Brandy and Coke is one of South Africa’s favourite tipples, particularly during the festive season, so what a lekker combination, I thought, with which to glaze a Christmas gammon. Coca-Cola makes an excellent glazing liquid because it cooks to a delicious dark stickiness, being so sweet and spicy (do you know that the top-secret formula is believed to contain vanilla, cinnamon, coriander and citrus fruit?).

In this recipe, a whole gammon is simmered in a beery liquid containing all the usual Christmassy spices, plus some whole star anise, which gives the meat a delicate aniseed flavour. If you don’t like aniseed, leave the star anise out. This is excellent served warm with boiled new potatoes and a green salad, or cold with mustard, pickles, home-made mayonnaise and hunks of crusty bread.

Whether you use a gammon with a bone in or one without is your choice, but please note that the cooking times differ (see recipe). Don’t throw the cooking liquid out: it's wonderfully flavoursome and aromatic, and makes an excellent stock for  soups and stews (see my notes at the bottom of this page).

 Sticky, sweet and so easy to make.

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke

For the gammon:
a large gammon, weighing 2.5 to 3 kg, bone in or out
one can (330 ml) ginger ale
one bottle (330 ml) of your favourite beer
2 whole star anise
3 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
1 thumb-length quill of cinnamon
a large blade of mace (or a quarter of a nutmeg, grated)
1 tsp (5 ml) whole black peppercorns
water, to cover
whole cloves, to stud

For the glaze:
one can (330 ml) Coca-Cola
4 tsp (20 ml) Dijon mustard
1 tsp (5 ml) hot English mustard powder
100 ml brown sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) good instant coffee
1 Tbsp (15 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 Tbsp (45 ml) brandy (Klipdrift, if you want to be authentic)

Weigh your piece of gammon, or make a note of the weight printed on the label. Put the gammon, ginger ale, beer, star anise, bay leaves, cloves, onion, cinnamon, mace and peppercorns into a large, deep pot. Add enough water just to cover the gammon. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat so that the gammon cooks at a slow simmer. Partially cover the pot with a tilted lid. If you’re using a boneless gammon, cook the meat for 30-40 minutes per kilogram. If you’re using a gammon with a large bone, cook it for 45-55 minutes per kilogram, or according to the instructions on the wrapping. Check the pot now and then, and top up with more water if necessary.

Christmas Gammon Glazed with Brandy and Coke
Poaching the gammon in a rich, aromatic stock.
Turn off the heat and leave the gammon in the liquid to cool completely. (It’s a good idea to boil the gammon the day before, and to leave it overnight to cool.)

Preheat the oven to its hottest setting (220-240 ºC.) Pour the Coca-Cola into a large, fairly shallow pan (a wok is ideal), turn on the heat and bubble briskly until the liquid has reduced by half. Whisk in the Dijon mustard, the mustard powder, the sugar and the coffee powder. Turn up the heat and boil fast, stirring often, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced and is slightly syrupy. At this stage, you should be left with about 200 ml of liquid. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and brandy.

Fish the gammon out of its cooking liquid, pat quite dry and place in a roasting pan. Carefully peel away the rind and discard. Using a sharp knife, score the top of the gammon in a diamond pattern. Stud the gammon with whole cloves.

Pour the glaze over the gammon and place the roasting pan in a blazing hot oven. Cook for 20-30 minutes (how long this takes will depend on the heat of your oven), basting the meat every four to five minutes by scooping the glaze off the bottom of the pan and trickling it all over the top and sides. The glaze will thicken and reduce as time goes by: watch it like a hawk, as it burns easily.

When the gammon has a mahogany-brown sticky crust, and there is just a little glaze left in the bottom of the pan, remove it from the oven. Using a pastry brush, paint any remaining glaze over the top and sides of the gammon. Set aside to rest for ten minutes, then serve hot with boiled new potatoes and a green salad. If you’re serving this cold, store it, uncovered, in the fridge, for up to four hours.

Serves 8-10 as part of a festive feast

A Gammony Meal on a Shoestring

As I mentioned above, gammons are very inexpensive at the moment, so here's a way of stretching a large gammon over two meals. This will serve six people for two meals, or more if you have an enormous gammon. And you might have some left over for sandwiches!

Boiled Gammon with Root Vegetables and Parsleyed Béchamel Sauce
Boil the gammon as described above, but omit the star anise and the ginger ale. Half an hour before the end of the cooking time, add a selection of vegetables to the pot: halved or quartered potatoes in their skins, thickly sliced carrots, parsnips and turnips, and some peeled, quartered onions.

In the meantime, make a parsley sauce (recipe below).  Remove the gammon from the pot, pull off the rind and discard. Scrape away most of the white fat with a knife. Slice some of the hot gammon and place it on a large, deep platter. Surround the gammon with the cooked vegetables, and ladle over a little hot stock. Serve immediately, and pass the parsley sauce around in a jug.

Hearty Soup with Tomatoes, Lentils and Gammon
Put the remains of the gammon in the fridge.  Strain the stock into a large bowl and refrigerate.

The next day, remove any fat that's congealed on top of the stock.  In a separate, large pot, fry chopped carrots, onions and celery in a little olive oil, until softened. Add the cold stock, two bay leaves, a large sprig of thyme, two cloves of crushed garlic, two tins of peeled, chopped tomatoes, and a large handful each of brown and split red lentils.  Simmer for an hour. At this point, you can whizz the soup a little with a stick blender, or you can leave it chunky. If the mixture seems very thick, thin it down with water

Now season the soup with herbs, spices and condiments of your choice: a little cumin and paprika, perhaps, some pungent dried oregano, chilli flakes, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, and so on.  Twenty minutes before you're going to serve it, dice the remaining gammon and add it to the pot. (Some quartered, boiled potatoes will stretch the meal even further.) Season generously with salt and pepper and serve hot, with a scattering of chopped fresh parsley, a dollop of cold natural yoghurt and some crusty bread.

Parsleyed Béchamel Sauce
3 T (45 ml) butter
3 T (45 ml) flour
350 ml cold milk
350 ml hot ham stock
1 tsp (5 ml) Dijon mustard
juice of half a lemon
½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
salt and white pepper

Put the flour and the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Using a whisk, stir briskly until the butter melts, and allow to cook for two minutes. Now tip in a cup or so of the cold milk, whisking well as you pour. When the mixture begins to thicken, add the remaining milk and the ham stock, turn up the heat to its fullest setting, and continue whisking until the sauce has thickened and come to the boil. Turn the heat down to its lowest setting and allow it to bubble gently for another two minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the mustard, the lemon juce and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.

Makes 700 ml Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmassy Plum and Tamarind Sauce

Christmassy Fresh-Plum and Tamarind SauceHere's an easy, quick-to-make fresh plum sauce that's sweet, tart, and scented with Christmassy spices that evoke all the comfort and joy of the festive season.  It's delicious poured over vanilla ice cream and topped with chipped bitter chocolate and fresh pomegranate seeds, or used as a topping for hot puddings such as bread-and-butter pudding. You can also use it, in dashes,  to add a fruity richness to gravies and stews. Welcome to the second recipe in my series of easy festive recipes for feeding a crowd.

I jump for joy when I see the first plums of summer in the shops, because there are few fruits I love more than ripe, juicy, ruby-red plums, preferably eaten warm and straight from the tree, with juice trickling down one's chin.  I don't get a chance to do that now I'm a grown-up and don't live anywhere near a plum tree, but the childhood memory of standing in a sunny orchard feasting on ripe, wasp-stung plums never fails to make my mouth water.

Isn't 'plum' a perfect name for this marvellous fruit? The word, in my mind, evokes both 'plump' and 'luscious', and it's one of my favourite food-words (I'm also a big fan of 'persimmon', 'peach', 'vanilla' and 'pepper': here's a post I wrote a few years back about delightful - and disgusting - food words).

This is a variation of my recipe Spiced Plums with Tamarind, which I posted on this blog in December two years ago. Although the plums (which I bottled) were delicious, they tended to disintegrate in the bottle, so I've refined the recipe and turned it into a sauce. This keeps well in the fridge for up to a week, and freezes nicely. If your plums are very tart (taste them first!) you may need to add a little more sugar than the amount I've specified below.

Christmassy Plum and Tamarind Sauce

4 Tbsp (60 ml) sultanas, roughly chopped
16 large, ripe red plums
30 g pressed tamarind (a piece about the size of a matchbox)
1 cup (250 ml) white sugar
a quill of cinnamon the length of your thumb
5 whole allspice berries (or 1 tsp - 5 ml - ground allspice)
2 star anise
a long strip of pared lemon rind
2 Tbsp (30 ml) white wine vinegar
2 cups (500 ml) water

Christmassy Fresh-Plum and Tamarind SauceTwo hours before you make the sauce, put the chopped sultanas into a small bowl and cover with a little warm water (or port, if you like). Wash the plums and put them whole into a deep saucepan. Drain the sultanas, discard their soaking liquid and add them to the pot, along with all the remaining ingredients. Bring slowly to the boil, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. Now turn down the heat and simmer for 25-30 minutes, or until the plums have collapsed. Cover and allow to cool completely.

Place a sieve over a large bowl and tipped the cooled mixture into the sieve, in batches if necessary. Using the back of a soup ladle and plenty of elbow power, press the sauce through the sieve. This is a bit laborious, but pour yourself a glass of sherry, put on some music and persist until you have only skins and pips left in the sieve. Tip the sauce into a clean jug and refrigerate.

Makes about 750 ml sauce.

>> Another way to use the plums in season now: my Fresh Plum and Almond Cake

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Nectarine Frangipane Tart, with my tips for making feather-light pastry

Every shelf in my local supermarket is brimming with South African summer fruits, and this week the loveliest of them all are plump nectarines in glorious sunset colours. They're delicious eaten raw, but equally good cooked in a rustic, fruity tart filled with a lightly brandied frangipane.

I get hot under the collar when someone nicks a recipe off this site without asking (and you won't believe how often this happens) so I feel a bit guilty about sharing a brilliant and reliable recipe that I personally nicked off someone else 25 years ago.

When I say 'nicked', I mean that I read it in a cook book, tried it, and liked it so much that I typed out the recipe (using an actual typewriter, as we did in those days) and stuck it in my recipe file. I must have made this thirty or forty times over the past two decades, using apples, pears, apricots and plums, and it comes close to what I regard as a perfect recipe. I'm sorry now that I didn't make a note of whose recipe it was, because I would like to shake that person firmly by the hand. (Nowadays, when I write down a recipe, I always make a note of whose recipe it is, and what book it came from.)

In its original form, this was a recipe for (and I recorded at least this part of the recipe) a Normandy Apple Tart. This is a classic French recipe using a crisp pâte brisée (shortcrust pastry), a frangipane of almonds and eggs, and very thinly sliced apples.

Although at first glance this recipe may seem technically demanding - as does any recipe that calls for home-made pastry - it's actually very easy to make, provided that you follow the instructions to the letter.

Before I give you the recipe, here are my top tips and tricks for making light, short, good-looking pastry.

Pastry tips and tricks

1. Use a food processor fitted with a metal blade, if you have one, and forget all this nonsense about using your fingertips. Food-processor pastry produces excellent results because it doesn't have a chance to heat up, is not touched by warm fingers, and is mixed in a jiffy. But don't over-process the pastry.

2. Use very cold butter. A good tip is to place your block of butter in the freezer for an hour or so before you make your pastry, and then grate it onto a pre-chilled plate.

3. Add just enough iced water to bring the mixture together into a crumbly ball, and let the ball turn round no more than six times in the food processor.

4. Don't overwork your pastry. Don't knead it, bash it, pound it or stretch it. The very most you should handle it is to push it together with your fingertips and then pat it out into a little circle. Dip your fingertips in iced water first.

5. Do rest your pastry, covered, for at least half an hour in the fridge.

6. Roll (and you are going to love me for this tip, which comes from Rachel Allen) your pastry out between two sheets of clingfilm. If the clingfilm sheets are too narrow, join several pieces together

7. Use light but firm rolling motions, in all directions. What you want is a smooth, even sheet about 3mm deep, and about 5 cm larger than the size of the tart pan.

8. Use a marble-sized ball of dough to press the pastry well into the corners.

9. Don't trim the edges, but allow them to drape over the sides of the pan; this prevents the pastry from shrinking at the edges. Trim the excess away with a knife when you've finished baking the tart.

10. Prick the base all over, using a fork, in about 40 places, before baking blind.

11. When baking blind, line the pastry with a sheet of proper baking paper (not foil or wax paper) and large lentils or ceramic baking beads. Avoid rice, as it inevitably spills and embeds itself in the pastry.

12. If you're adding a very wet filling (such as soggy apples) brush the bottom of the pastry with beaten egg before you blind-bake it.

13. Watch the tart like a hawk while it is cooking. If the edges are browning too quickly, cover them with narrow strips of foil.

Nectarine Frangipane Tart

For the pastry:
200 g flour
200 g cold butter
a pinch of salt
1 large egg yolk
2-3 T (30-45 ml) iced water

For the filling:
100 g softened butter
100 g caster sugar
1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk
2 tsp (10 ml) brandy
2 T (30 ml) flour
100 g ground almonds
½ tsp (2.5 ml) almond extract or essence
6 just-ripe nectarines, stoned and sliced

To finish:
caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180° C. First make the pastry. Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs, then add the egg yolk. With the motor running, add the cold water in tiny trickles, until until the pastry just holds together. Remove from the processor, press together into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge to rest for half an hour.

Grease an 22 cm non-stick flan or pie pan. Place a long piece of cling film on your countertop. Put the cold pastry ball on top, and cover with another piece of clingfilm. Using a rolling pin, roll out the pastry into a rough circle about 5 cm bigger than your pan, and about 2-3 mm thick.

Peel off the top layer of cling film, wrap the pastry over your rolling pin, and centre it, pastry-side down, on the pie dish. Gently peel away the clingfilm and, using your fingertips and a ball of left-over pastry, lightly press the pastry into the dish. Allow the edges to drape over the sides of the dish.

Prick the base all over with a fork, cover with a piece of greaseproof paper and fill with lentils or baking beans. Bake blind for about 15 minutes, then remove the paper and beans and bake for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Using a whisk or electric beater, cream together the butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy. Combine the egg and egg yolk in a small bowl, and then add the egg, a little at a time, to the butter mixture. Add the brandy, flour, almonds and almond extract and stir well to combine.

Tip the frangipane into the cooled pastry case and smooth the top with a spatula. Arrange the nectarine slices in overlapping rows or circles on the filling, pressing them down slightly. Bake at 180° C for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle lightly with caster sugar, and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and the filling cooked through. Allow the tart to cool a little, then trim away the excess pastry with a knife.

Serve at room temperature, with whipped cream or vanilla icecream.

Makes one  22 cm tart. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Friday, 3 December 2010

Buttermilk Cheesecake with a Fresh Strawberry Topping

This delicate fridge cheesecake is perfect for a light finish to a summer meal, with its creamy, barely-set filling and zingy topping of fresh strawberries. I made this cheesecake a few months ago, and have been itching to share it with you ever since, but I held it back because I created the recipe specially for the fourth issue of South Africa's ground-breaking digital food & wine magazine Crush! Online, which went live yesterday.  Now that the December edition of Crush! has been released into the wild, I feel I can let my little cheesecake out of its cage.

Buttermilk Cheesecake with a Strawberry Topping

I'm very tickled to have been invited by Michael Olivier, editor and owner of Crush!, to contribute five of my original recipes to his regular 'Which Wine? Which Food?' feature. Michael - whom I first met less than a year ago, at the first South African Food Blogger's Conference - is an esteemed and well-loved elder of  the Cape's buzzing food and wine community.

When I say 'elder', I don't mean some sorry old fart or has-been, but someone who has earned the genuine respect of  his peers - and his many younger protégés  - by spending decades honing his pen, his palate, his knowledge and his exceptional people skills.

I've used buttermilk in this recipe because I think it's a most under-used ingredient, and because I love its taste: cultured buttermilk is tart, with a slight sweetness, and has a nice creamy consistency. And - agree with me please - it has a delightful name.

 [Postscript: Try using fresh maas in this recipe!]

Buttermilk Cheesecake with a Strawberry Topping
Use a knife dipped in boiling water to cut perfect slices of this cheesecake.

A challenge with an unbaked cheesecake like this one is getting it out of the tin in one beautiful piece. My method is to line the base of the pan with clingfilm, which allows you easily to loosen the crust. Use a microwaveable hot-pack, or a cloth dipped in boiling water, to warm the sides of the tin before you unmould it (see Cook's Notes, below).

You can use any seasonal fruit as a topping: this cake is very good with granadilla (passion fruit) or mango. Use the same ratio of fruit pulp to gelatine, as laid out in my recipe, below.

Buttermilk Cheesecake with a Fresh Strawberry Topping

For the biscuit crust:
one packet (200 g) Eet-Sum-Mor biscuits, or similar shortbread biscuits
80 g (80 ml) unsalted butter, softened or melted

For the filling:
⅓ cup (80 ml) water
4 tsp (20 ml) powdered gelatine
one x 250 g tub of cream cheese
1 cup (250 ml) cultured buttermilk or maas [amasi]
1 cup (250 ml) caster sugar
1 tsp (5 ml) pure vanilla extract
finely grated zest of a small lemon
1 cup (250 ml) cream

For the topping:
a punnet (about 250g) of fresh strawberries, hulled
2 Tbsp (30 ml) water
1 tsp (5 ml) powdered gelatine
lemon juice and caster sugar, to taste

Break up the biscuits and process them to fine crumbs in a food processor (or crush them with a rolling pin). Place in a bowl, add the soft or melted butter, and stir well to combine. Butter the base of a non-stick 24-cm springform cake tin, cover with clingfilm, and butter again. Tuck the edges of the clingfilm under the base, and place it in its ring. Press the biscuit mixture evenly onto the base of the tin and place in the fridge while you make the topping.

Put the water in a little heat-proof bowl and sprinkle the gelatine on top. Set aside for a few minutes to sponge. Place the bowl in a pot of simmering water (the water should come half-way up the sides) and stir occasionally as the gelatine melts. When the liquid is clear, remove the bowl and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can melt the gelatine, in its bowl, in your microwave, but be sure to do this in 7-9 second bursts, on high.  Don't allow the gelatine to boil, or its setting properties may be affected.

Put the cream cheese and half the buttermilk into a large bowl and, using a whisk, beat until quite smooth. Beat in the remaining buttermilk, the caster sugar, the vanilla extract and the lemon zest, until you have a smooth mixture. Strain the warm gelatine into the bowl and mix well.  In a separate bowl, whisk the cream until it has formed thick, soft peaks.  Gently fold the cream into the cream cheese/buttermilk mixture. Pour the mixture over the crumb crust and refrigerate for 2-3 hours, or until firm.

Now make the topping. Sponge and melt the gelatine and water, as described above. Put the strawberries in a liquidiser, add a few tablespoons of caster sugar (depending on the sweetness of your strawberries) and blitz to a purée. Measure out a cup (250 ml) of this purée and to it add a few drops of lemon juice. Strain the warm gelatine into the purée, stir well and pour it evenly over the top of the cake. Refrigerate until set.

Warm the sides of the tin (as described below) and release the cake. Slide a palette knife between the crust and the clingfilm, turning the cake as you go, and then slide the cake onto a platter. Slice the cake using a knife dipped in hot water.

Makes one 24-cm cake

Cook's Notes

There are various methods of loosening a gelatine-set dessert from its mould. Professional chefs use a blowtorch, which is briefly flicked over the outside of the tin, but this is a risky business, as a few seconds too long can liquefy the outside of the cheesecake and, besides, it's useless if you're using a plastic jelly mould. A better way is to dip a kitchen cloth in boiling water, and press it to outside of the cold tin for a few seconds. But the best way of all, I've found, is to use a hot pack designed for soothing acheing muscles.

If you don't have a Happy Hugger, here's how to make one yourself. (I keep one of these in my kitchen drawer for the sole purpose of loosening jellies!). Steal a long cotton sock from someone's drawer. Fill it with rice or barley, and tie a firm knot in the open end. Place the sock in a microwave oven for 2-3 minutes, or until very warm to the touch. Press the hot pack around the edges of the tin, for 30 seconds at a time, moving it around the edges as necessary. At the same time, release the spring-form lever (or lift the cake ring)  in small increments.

 When you cut the cheesecake, use a hot knife (heated over a flame, or in a bowl of boiling water) for slicing. Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

My heaven on a plate: Profiteroles with a Double-Creamy Blue-Cheese Filling

Wicked, decadent and sinful hardly begin to describe these dreamy little puffs, which are so packed with calories that you might as well skip eating them and strap them directly to your thighs and bottom*. But hell, Christmas is coming, so why not go ahead and indulge? Besides - if you're in my frame of mind (and body) - there are going to be slim pickings indeed come January.

Profiteroles with a Double-Creamy Blue-Cheese Filling

This recipe, which I finally wrestled to the floor last week after several failed attempts, is all wound up with my personal history as a devoted lover of food.

Let me explain. Do you remember something utterly delicious that you ate as a child or teenager; something that turned your knees to jelly and filled your eyes with tears? I had two such tasting epiphanies in my early years.

The second was when I tasted Boursin cheese with garlic on a trip to Paris when I was fifteen (but more about that in a future post). The first, also involving cheese, was a few years earlier, when I reached into the fridge and sunk my teeth into a little puffy ball filled with a chilled, creamy mixture that tasted, frankly, of heaven. I believe I might have given out a low whimper: there were choirs of angels, and beams of celestial light fell through the kitchen windows.

Okay, I exaggerate, but the memory of tasting those little beauties remains as clear as day.

I reached back into the fridge, and had another one. And another. And another. Within a few minutes, I'd demolished most of the savoury profiteroles my mother had bought for some special occasion. She was furious with me: 'How could you eat so many?' she asked. 'You might have left one or two for the rest of us!'

'I just couldn't help myself, Ma,' I told her, wiping the crumbs off my bulging cheeks, and that was the honest truth.

My mum hasn't any memory of this event, so she was not able to help when I asked her if she recalled what was in those little puffs. At that tender age, I didn't have a library of tastes to draw upon, so in recreating the recipe I've had to take a guess, using my more experienced adult palate.

And, do you know what? I believe that what I was tasting was either blue cheese, or camembert, or very likely both.

In my most recent attempts, I've tried a combination of creamy blue cheese and camembert, and I've also tried using Brie. The mixture tasted right, but the the filling was a little oily and stiff. So I've abandoned the camembert, and come up with a silken mixture of blue cheese, cream cheese and whipped cream that is as close as I think I'll ever get.

I presume that whoever created these intended them to be served at room temperature, with a crispy outer shell and a soft and fluffy filling. But, for me, these are perfect eaten cold, somewhat soggy on the outside, and straight from the fridge. With bulging cheeks.

As choux pastry is quite tricky to get right, I've given detailed instructions below. Please measure the ingredients exactly (and see Cook's Notes, below).

For best results, a good-quality creamy blue cheese and a thick, full-fat cream cheese are essential. I used Lancewood's lovely plain cream cheese, and a Simonsberg creamy blue.


Profiteroles with a Double-Creamy Blue-Cheese Filling

For the profiteroles:
1 cup (250 ml) cake flour
a large pinch of salt
125 g salted butter (this is a quarter of a 500-gram block of butter)
1 cup (250 ml) water
4 extra-large free range eggs

For the filling:
130 g creamy blue cheese
1 cup (250 ml) whipping [single] cream
one tub (240 g) full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
freshly milled black pepper

Profiteroles with a Double-Creamy Blue-Cheese FillingFirst make the profiteroles.

Preheat the oven to 180º C. Line a baking sheet with a piece of greaseproof paper. Sift the flour and salt into a little bowl, or onto a sheet of paper. Put the butter and the water into a large saucepan and set over a brisk heat. When the mixture begins to boil rapidly, remove the pan from the heat. Immediately tip the sifted flour and salt, all in one go, into the butter/water mixture. Stir energetically with a wooden spoon, and return to the heat. Turn down the heat and cook, stirring vigorously and continuously, for one to two minutes, or until the mixture forms a ball that comes cleanly away from the sides of the pan.

Take the pan off the heat and allow to cool for five minutes, or until just warm to the touch. Now beat in the whole eggs, one at a time, beating hard after each addition. Once you've added the fourth egg, you should have a glossy and thick - though slightly slack - mixture. Pile the mixture into a large piping bag fitted with a big plain nozzle, and pipe blobs the size of a litchi onto the baking paper (or use a teaspoon to make neat little dollops).

Put the baking sheet into the hot oven and bake for 25-35 minutes (depending on the ferocity of your oven) until well risen, golden brown and crisp. Turn off the oven, open the door, and allow the profiteroles to dry out for 10 minutes. Remove the profiteroles from the oven and turn them onto their sides. Use a piping nozzle (or the handle-end of a wooden spoon) to poke a hole into the bottom of each one. Set aside to cool completely.

Profiteroles with a Double-Creamy Blue-Cheese Filling
In the meantime make the filling. Crumble the blue cheese into a saucepan, and add half (125 ml) of the cream. Place over a gentle flame and heat through, stirring often as the cheese melts. Do not allow to boil. When all the cheese has melted, remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Place the cream cheese in a large bowl, add the warm blue cheese mixture and, using a metal spoon, stir furiously until the mixture is smooth and well combined. Whip the remaining half-cup (125 ml) of cream to a soft peak, then stir it lightly into the blue cheese mixture. If the mixture seems a little stiff, don't worry: persist with gentle stirring, and it will all come together Season with a few grindings of black pepper. Cover and set aside, at room temperature.

Wash and dry your piping bag and fit a medium nozzle to it. Fill the piping bag with the blue cheese mixture. Poke the nozzle into the underside of each profiterole and squeeze in just enough of the cheese mixture to fill the cavity.

Serve immediately with a dab of wine jelly. Or - please trust me on this - put them in the fridge for a couple of hours, or until the filling is firm.

Makes 12 large profiteroles, or 18 small ones

Cook's Notes

  • Choux pastry, although easy to make, is a little temperamental, and you can really only learn from experience when the batter is of a perfect consistency. Much depends on the flour you're using and the size of your eggs. Measure all the ingredients exactly, and follow the instructions above to the letter.
  • If your first batch of choux pastry doesn't turn out well, don't be discouraged. Try again!  Perfect choux buns are light and crispy, hollow on the inside, and have a soft golden-brown colour.  

* With apologies to a friend of my sister's, who came up with the idea of strapping fatty foods directly to your backside.

Profiteroles with a Double-Creamy Blue-Cheese Filling
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Feeding a crowd: North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad

Expecting a crowd this festive season? Here's a bountiful salad crammed with deep flavours, interesting textures and the sunny, spicy flavours of North Africa.  It's the first recipe in a series I'll be running between now and Christmas, containing my favourite crowd-pleasing dishes.

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad
I'm such a fan of big, generous salads, those wonderful meals-in-one that you can prepare in advance and dish up in gargantuan portions to the festive hordes. And let's face it: not many who live in the Southern Hemisphere feel like sitting down to a rib-sticking hot meal in the sultriest days of December. (Although, because I and two of my three sisters are married to men from England, Wales and Scotland respectively, we always pull out the stops and come together on Christmas Eve to produce a ham, a turkey with several stuffings, and the obligatory roast spuds, gravy, minted peas, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, and so on.)

But back to salads. Over the past  few decades, salads have become simpler, fresher and lighter -  my own idea of a perfect salad, for example, is fresh, peppery rocket and watercress dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and Parmesan - but there are times I miss the abundant salads we ate as children and teens in the Seventies & Eighties.

This was the age of the square-meal salad, when a Proper Salad contained a bewildering salmagundi of ingredients: all the usual crunchy greens, plus bacon, cheese, avocado, nuts, seeds, peas, mushrooms, pasta, tuna, chicken, olives, onion rings, boiled potatoes, anchovies, and so on. And if that wasn't enough, a salad of this sort was topped with croutons, parsley, chives, a garlicky dressing and home-made mayonnaise - everything, in fact, but the kitchen sink.  It usually came in a big perspex-like bowl (which grew cloudy over time) or a shining wooden salad dish, with carved salad spoons to match.

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad
I quite often make salads like this for my family, using a shop-bought roast chicken and anything I find lying around in the fridge and store cupboard.  My kids call it 'Everything Salad' because it contains, well, everything.

Here is my 'everything' couscous and roast-chicken salad, which has a Moroccan/Tunisian feel, with a bit of the nearby Mediterranean thrown in for good measure. The recipe is easily doubled, or even tripled, and it's very versatile, because you can add just about anything you please.

Please don't feel hesitant about combining ingredients that you wouldn't normally put together: for example, the recipe below contains roast tomatoes and fresh orange juice and Turkish apricots, three things I usually wouldn't put in the same dish, but they are all bought together by a peppy, citrussy dressing containing all the deliciously perfumed flavours of the region.

Obviously, you will need to use common sense when adding extra ingredients: tinned tuna, for example, or  prawns, or bacon or avocado will not work here. But I would have no problems adding any or (in the spirit of things) all of the following: raisins or sultanas, feta cheese, pine nuts, toasted sesame and sunflower seeds, preserved lemons, fresh orange wedges, pitted black olives, roasted peppers, pomegranate seeds, and so on.

This is a long  recipe, but do take your time over it, because it is the wonderful aromatic stock created while the chicken is roasting in water and flavourings that gives the couscous a special depth of flavour. Also, roasting the chicken this way results in flakes of perfectly tender flesh that you can't achieve by, say, poaching chicken breasts in stock. You will need to buy very fresh spices, and do try to get your hands on dried mint, which has a flavour quite distinct from that of fresh mint.

This salad improves upon standing for an hour or two, but add the coriander, parsley and toasted almonds just before serving. Serve at room temperature.

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad

For the chicken and stock:
a large free-range chicken, trimmed of all excess fat
1 carrot, thickly sliced
a stick of celery, sliced
6 parsley stalks (reserve the leaves)
10 peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 whole cloves
a large, unskinned onion, quartered
half a lemon
2 cloves garlic, peeled

For the spice paste:
1 Tbsp (15 ml) cumin seeds
2 tsp (10 ml) coriander seeds
1 tsp (5 ml) flaky sea salt
1 tsp (5 ml) black peppercorns
4 fat cloves garlic, peeled
1 large red chilli, chopped, or 2 tsp (10 ml) chilli flakes (to taste)
the finely grated zest of a large lemon
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) ground cinnamon
6 Tbsp (90 ml) olive oil

For the salad:
2 large, shining aubergines (see Cooks' Notes, below)
olive oil (see recipe)
600 g ripe cherry tomatoes
3 cups (500 g) couscous (see Cooks' Notes, below)
1 punnet snow peas, sliced
12 Turkish apricots, coarsely chopped
1 cup (250 ml) pitted green olives
a tin of chickpeas, drained
a bunch of fresh coriander (about 40 g) [cilantro]
a bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley

For the dressing:
the juice of a large lemon
the juice of an orange
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) ground cumin
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) sweet paprika
½ tsp (2.5 ml) chilli powder (or more, to taste)
2 tsp (10 ml) dried mint
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
a pinch of cinnamon
6 Tbsp (90 ml) olive oil

To top:
extra parsley and coriander
100 g slivered almonds, lightly toasted until golden brown
a little powdered cumin and paprika

North African Chicken and Couscous 'Everything' Salad
Heat the oven to 160º C. (If your oven is not fan-assisted, preheat it to 170º C.)

First make the spice paste. Heat a frying pan and toast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant. Place them with the salt and peppercorns in a mortar and grind to a powder (or put them through a spice- or coffee- grinder). Now add the garlic cloves and the chilli and pound to a paste. Stir in the lemon zest, cinnamon and olive oil.

Put the chicken into a large, deep roasting pan. Take one heaped tablespoon of the spice paste and, using a spoon, smear it inside the chicken. Put the carrot, parsley stalks, peppercorns, bay leaves, cloves and onion into the pan. Fill the pan with water to a depth of two centimetres -  or deep enough so that the water just touches the tip of the pope's nose. Make sure that the water level is well below the open cavity of the chicken, so that the stock doesn't flood into the chicken during cooking and wash out the spice paste.

Take another tablespoon of the spice paste and, using your hands, smear it all over the skin of the chicken, extending it down to a centimetre above the water line. Squeeze the half-lemon all over the top of the chicken, then push the squeezed-out half into the cavity, along with the two garlic cloves.

Set aside while you prepare the aubergines. Remove the stalks and cut them into neat 3-cm chunks. Place these on a separate baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Now add a heaped tablespoon of the spice paste and, using your hands, toss well to coat. Season with salt. Place the chicken in the oven, on the top shelf, and the baking sheet with the aubergines on the lower shelf. Set the timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, take the aubergines out of the oven and add the cherry tomatoes, mixing together with your hands so the tomatoes are well coated in spicy oil. (Add a little more olive oil if the aubergines seem dry.)

Place the vegetables back in the oven and cook for a further 20 minutes, or until the tomatoes are just beginning to collapse, and the aubergines are soft. Remove the vegetables from the oven, cover with foil and set aside.

Continue roasting the chicken for another 35-40 minutes, or until it is cooked through. (Note: the total roasting time for the chicken is 1 hour 20 minutes, for the aubergines 45 minutes, and for the tomatoes 20 minutes.)

Remove the chicken from the oven, cover the dish and allow to sit until cool enough to handle. Carefully lift the chicken from the stock, making sure not to spill any of the cavity juices into the stock. Put the chicken into a large shallow dish and tilt it so that the juices run out. Cut off the breasts, with their skin, and slice into neat pieces. Pull away all the remaining chicken flesh and tear into bite-size pieces. Discard the bones, fat and non-crispy skin (or keep for making stock). Turn all the chicken pieces over in the juices, cover, and set aside to marinate while you finish making the salad.

Strain the stock left in the roasting pan into a bowl and leave to settle. Discard all the stock vegetables and flavorings. Skim any excess fat off the top of the stock. Measure the stock into a bowl, adding enough hot water to bring the quantity up to 4 cups (1 litre) in total.

Place the dry couscous in a very large mixing bowl and pour in 800 ml of the warm stock. Do not stir. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and set aside, undisturbed, for 20 minutes. After this time, taste a grain of couscous. If it's at all gritty in texture, add a little more warm stock, and leave to stand for another ten minutes. Using a fork, fluff up the couscous to separate the grains. (See Cook's Notes, below).

In the meantime, make the dressing. Place the remaining spice paste into a bowl, add all the remaining dressing ingredients, and whisk well to combine.

Now assemble the salad. Put a quarter of the aubergines, tomatoes, chickpeas, snow peas, olives and apricots to one side, for topping the salad. Gently mix the remaining three-quarters into the couscous. Pour three-quarters of the dressing over the salad, add the coriander and parsley and toss very thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary (this salad needs more salt than you would think).

Tip the couscous salad onto a very large platter, letting it fall into a loose volcano shape. Scatter the reserved aubergines, tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and apricots over the top. Pile the chicken pieces around the edges of of the dish.  Drizzle the remaining dressing all over the couscous and chicken. Scatter the toasted almonds, and some more coriander and parsley, all over the salad, and dust generously with cumin and paprika. Serve immediately.

Serves eight.

Cooks' Notes
  • You can salt the aubergines to remove any bitterness if you like, but I don't find this necessary when using young, fresh aubergines.
  • I always make couscous using warm (not boiling) stock, and I never cook it or steam it, but if you're not confident about this method, follow the instructions on the packet, using the stock you've made instead of water. The amount of liquid that your couscous will absorb depends on the brand you're using. If you find you've added too much liquid, drain the couscous in a large sieve for a few minutes.

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