December 28, 2008

Chestnut, Vanilla & Rum Melktert

Looking through my collection of custard tart recipes I found this traditional South African recipe and adapted it by adding the last of my dried local chestnuts and soaking them in rum, to celebrate the end of the harvest season, and to kick-start the holiday season. This tart is deliciously creamy and ideal for the festive, cold winter months.

The generous covering of cinnamon sugar on the top combined with the boozy richness of a bottom layer of halved, rum-soaked chestnuts, and the filling of vanilla-infused custard makes a tart that should get a first-place vote from every family member (if the varied tastes of my family are anything to go by!). Made with a gluten-free crust which holds up fantastically when cut, and lasts for up to 1 week in the fridge, this recipe will endure the festive week around Christmas when other favourite goodies compete for a place on the dessert plates.

Note 1: the filling will fill a 22 cm (9") spring-form tin as well as a little cake tin on the side (nice for sampling before tucking in to the actual tart!
Note 2: Leave a good 2 hours for the creation of this dessert; it is well worth the care and attention.

5 tbsps rum
400ml Double cream
1/2 of 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
50g unsalted butter
4 eggs, separated
100g granulated sugar
Chestnuts: 2 small handfulls of pre-boiled and peeled chestnuts
2 tbsps of gluten free flour mixture (10ml each of potato starch, tapioca starch and white rice flour)
2 tbsps of cornstarch / cornflour
2 tsp cinnamon
75g brown sugar with no lumps

To allow for maximum rum absorption, break the chestnuts into halves and place in a shallow container that can just barely contain the chestnuts in 1 shallow layer and spoon over 3 tablespoons of rum. Leave to soak until their use at the very end of the recipe.

For the Gluten free Pastry:
1 egg
75g unsalted butter at room temperature
75g icing sugar

In a food processor combine the cubed butter, icing sugar and egg. In a bowl stir the flours together with the xanthan gum and add to the butter mixture.
75g tapioca starch
50g potato starch
125g white rice flour
1/2 tsp xanthan gum

Pulse until the pastry forms a ball. Flatten the dough into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap to chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This can be made ahead of time and left in the fridge until required.

Place the disc of dough between two pieces of plastic wrap and roll out. The dough may be resistant to stretching but keep rolling until you reach a thickness of roughly an 1/8th of an inch. Drape the dough over a 20-22cm spring-form/loose-bottomed cake tin. You may have to patch the dough a little around the sides and top edges but rest assured it will look great in the end. You can even leave the top edge looking uneven which adds to the character -making it a little more rustic looking; just be sure to keep the sides quite high- you want the dough coming up to at least 2cm from the top of the springform tin. Prick the base with a fork and chill for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 190°C.

While the pastry is chilling put the cream in a pan with the butter and half the vanilla pod. Bring to a boil, then quickly remove from the heat, and leave the mixture to infuse.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and prepare to weight the pastry for baking. Cut enough parchment paper so that it will cover the base of the pastry and so that it can be filled with baking beans (I use rice grains which is often a cheaper option than buying baking beans). Try to evenly distribute the weight so that it reaches the outer edges of the pastry base to prevent rising.

Bake the pastry for 10 minutes and remove paper and baking beans/rice. If the fork marks reveal the tin base then brush the pastry with a beaten egg to help seal it. If given the egg-wash treatment then return the pastry to the oven for a further 10 minutes.

While the pastry is baking whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar, then whisk in the flour mixture and the cornstarch. Sieve the heated cream into the egg yolks and stir, then return mixture to the pan to cook on a low heat for several minutes, stirring the entire time until the custard thickens*, then remove from the heat.

Add the rum to the custard and stir. Place the rum-soaked chestnuts into the base of the pastry in a single layer (save any additional chestnuts for another use). Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Pour the custard on top of the egg whites and quickly fold together until just combined. Pour the custard mixture into the cake tin then sprinkle with a mixture of the brown sugar and cinnamon.

Bake the tart for 25 minutes at 190°C until set. When cooked there should still be a slight wobble in the middle. Leave the tart to cool before diving in.

*If the mixture heats for too long or is not constantly stirred then lumps will form. If this happens, then don’t worry, just strain the mixture through a sieve working it through with a wooden spoon. This does take time however, and may affect the end result, so is best avoided.

December 22, 2008

Quince 'Cheese'

The more I learn about the quince fruit the more fascinated I become. I was first introduced to the quince in London when I came across an article from my favourite market's
(Borough market) magazine that highlighted local artisans. Two women had started a line of preserves which was being sold in high end bakeries like Konditor and Cook and high-end delicatessens, but in addition to the amazing jams with flavour combinations like vanilla bean and strawberry, they made a traditional recipe of quince cheese. This raised some questions in my head. Like how do you get the quince in the cheese??

It turned out that quince cheese is a hardened jelly made with equal quantities of sugar and fruit (you can use any kind of fruit to make any type of cheese) cooked for several hours until turning a deep red colour which looks stunningly jewel-like. The grainy quality of the quince produces a wonderful texture, and when left to 'cure' for 1-2 months in a cool place the cheese becomes perfectly sliceable- great for cutting into cubes, eating as a sweet meat or powdered with sugar like Turkish delight, and for bolstering your rich meat dishes or gravy with a little je ne sais quoi.

The article mentioned that I could find the quince cheese in the market at Neal's Yard dairy- THE best place in England to buy (and taste) hundreds of artisan produced British cheeses. It was already one of my favourite places in the market, but it just got extra points. We stood in the long queue and bought some infamous quince cheese. We were instantly hooked.

History tells us that quinces have been used for cooking for possibly thousands of years originating in Asia Minor. They migrated to the Mediterranean where the Romans often served them stewed with honey. Today, especially in Spain, you will find that quince 'cheese' is regularly cut and served with a cheese platter, or sliced to accompany a lovely aged Manchego cheese, sometimes for breakfast.

When I discovered this autumn that quinces were growing in peoples' yards in our neighbourhood all I could think about was making quince cheese. My Eastern European neighbour is friendly with one of the households who lets the supposedly troublesome quince fall to the ground, and takes it upon himself to (I quote) "give them to the people".

Lucky me! The recipe for quince cheese seemed very secretive at first - I only knew that the ladies in London were using a traditional Spanish recipe that was completely natural using no artificial preservatives. With luck this summer I acquired two excellent books on preserves that had two differing recipes for quince cheese. Because only one recipe had a photo of the finished product I decided to go with that one, but it became an incredibly labour intensive process taking around 5-6 hours to complete. Possibly the method in the other book is less time consuming. The rewards of slaving away- battling the fibrous quinces- have certainly been great. The recipe made enough that we can enjoy it throughout the winter and still have enough to cut into 'cheeses' or coat in powdered sugar for Christmas gifts.

Give quinces a try - their fragrance alone is enough of a reason to experiment. They can be turned to fragrant jellies, cheeses, compotes, sauces and more to have with any food from a piece of toast to a richly flavoured roast dinner.

December 4, 2008

Fudgy Chocolate Cookies..with a dash of spice

This is just the sort of treat you do not expect to see sitting alongside a floral-print teacup and saucer. You know the type, unassuming and quiet, but incredibly tempting once you get to know it. Not the sort of devilishly enticing dessert you would normally see on tiered trays stacked alongside cold cucumber white bread sandwiches and pale white scones and cream. No, this cookie is far more intriguing. Playing on the classic combination of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate it makes use of the seasonal abundance of walnuts and raisins adding a little kick with some freshly ground black pepper that is reminiscent of Norwegian style gingerbread houses. The Norwegian gingerbread house after all is named a pepperkakehus

Now I must repeat the initial warning; this little cookie is simply addictive. After toying with a similar gluten free recipe that I produced some time ago, it seemed that the recipe should be taken to the next level by making use of the Fair Trade organic cocoa that I've been chipping away at for a while now- reluctant to use it for anything less than the thickest of hot chocolates.

I'm not a great fan of cocoa in baking- preferring to use a good quality bar of chocolate whenever possible. But given my expensive taste in chocolate it is, alas, not always possible, or in this case, even necessary. Having made some addictive fudgy brownies in the past I assumed that the melted chocolate was the key to success-especially in terms of flavour, but generally, at least where cookies are concerned, the fudgy quality really comes down to the right combination of ingredients, cooking times, and refrigeration before cooking always helps them maintain their shape in the oven.

So, I hope you enjoy this gluten-free chewy chocolate cookie recipe, to be produced as often as you desire. They will keep for at least 4 days in the fridge (but I couldn't say if they would last any longer...).

Fudgy Chocolate Cookies:

Makes 19 cookies

1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup cocoa (Fair Trade and organic is recommended)
3-4 turns of a pepper grinder or approximately 1/2 tsp black pepper (optional)
1 cup gluten free flour blend*
3/4 cup roughly chopped walnuts or hazelnuts
1/2 cup raisins

*Gluten-free flour blend:
1/2 cup potato starch
1/4 cup rice flour
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1/2 tsp xanthan gum**
1 tsp baking powder

Cream the softened butter in a bowl, then add the sugar, mixing until completely combined. Add the eggs and mix until incorporated. Sift the cocoa into the mixture and stir well. Then add the black pepper, flour mixture, raisins and walnuts, and stir until completely blended into the cocoa mixture.

Refrigerate the dough for 10 minutes while the oven is preheating. Working quickly, take a heaped tablespoon of batter and, with lightly wet hands, roll it into a ball and place on baking sheet with two inches between each cookie. Bake at 350°F for 9 minutes only or until the cookies have become firm around the outside but the top is still soft to the touch (they will continue to cook for a few minutes when out of the oven).

Leave the cookies to rest on a cooling rack for a few minutes before diving in to savour the chocolate chewy cookies at their most dangerous, accompanied by a nice tall glass of milk.

** Just a warning not to add a 1/2 cup of xanthan gum to these cookies. My poor boyfriend found this out the hard way in his sweet attempt to make these cookies whilst not being familiar with the inherent qualities of this bizarre ingredient. Although we discovered what was wrong ('Arrhh! Why is this dough sooo hard to mix??') before the dough went in the oven we decided to run with it, and take advantage of the mistake, to see what kind of results were possible. Unfortunately, the fatal addition rendered the final product quite inedible- the texture nearly that of chocolate-flavoured chewing gum. Luckily for me he didn't give up. Trying once again, he mastered the cookie recipe, and made enough to satisfy our chocolate cookie cravings.