October 28, 2009

Apple Ginger & Carnival Squash Soup

This is a quick and easy soup. It's so quick and easy that it disappeared into our hungry mouths before I could even think to take a photo. It's pale golden yellow in colour- very autumnal indeed.

A satisfying and light dinner great for week-nights, when you want something simple, but warm and spicy enough to keep out the autumn chill.

Serves 2

1/2 a Carnival squash (Acorn squash would also work or any other of this size)
1 large tablespoon butter plus a splash of olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 large shallot or two regular size shallots- diced
1 inch of peeled ginger root- grated using a semi-fine grater (small enough that it’s nearly pulpy in texture)
1 large sweet apple, peeled, cored, and diced
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup water
1 heaped tablespoon mascarpone or 1/4 cup heavy cream

Set oven to 400°F, and in a roasting tray filled with a 1/2 inch of water, place the squash so the inside faces down. Place in the oven and allow the squash to steam for 20-25 minutes. In the meantime, heat the butter and oil in a large pot, then add the diced shallot and grated ginger and sauté over a low heat. Add the apple pieces and a good pinch of sea salt and some freshly ground black pepper to taste and sauté for a few more minutes. Next add the chicken stock and water and bring the soup to a simmer.

For the squash, scoop out the flesh (leave the thick peel behind), and add it directly to the soup. Bring the soup to a boil for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and gradually stir in the mascarpone or heavy cream. Pour the soup into a blender, or use a hand-blender and blend until totally smooth. Test the seasoning and adjust the salt to your taste. Garnish with another spoonful of mascarpone and some more cracked black pepper.

October 10, 2009

Deluxe Chocolate-Covered Seed, Nut and Fruit Bars

Now, I know that the sub-zero temperatures are officially telling me that it's fall and nearly winter, and that I should start to think more along the lines of heavy cakes, creamy fillings, and custard tarts, but you know, I think I may well have been converted to a healthier alternative (for now...), as long as it's smothered in dark chocolate of course! I put this recipe together earlier in the week and the chocolatey bars lasted beautifully for 4 days, which may not seem that long, but it was a good stint. In that time we enjoyed them with friends over late-night tea, brought them to a neighbour's house to have with coffee, and happily munched on them while working from home to provide some much-needed brain fuel. Now they're gone and I can't wait to make some more.

These bars are actually incredibly healthy. They contain Chia seeds (a good substitute would be hemp seeds) which are an excellent source of essential Omega oils. There's also pumpkin seeds and nuts for more protein and lovely dried fruit. You could have a lot of fun with this recipe, substituting almost any nut for the cashews - I'd recommend unsalted (or simply rinsed of their salt) pistachios or roasted hazelnuts, and if you'd like the bars to taste even richer, then try pecans. I used dried apricots and home-dried Italian prune plums (also known as Agen prunes/plums in France and the UK) but there's no reason you couldn't use a mix of any dried fruit you have on hand- either way it's worth experimenting.

Deluxe Chocolate-Covered Seed/Nut/Fruit bars:

With some butter grease the bottom and sides of a jelly-roll pan (about 16"x12"). Then line the pan with parchment paper. (The butter makes the parchment paper stay in place.) (if you don't mind a little sticking then you can skip the parchment paper)

For the Seed, Nut and Fruit Bars:
200g 70% dark chocolate (or omit the chocolate topping if you're in a rush, and just add 50g chocolate chips or baking chocolate chips in with the pumpkin seeds at the end- it won't be quite as luxurious but at least you still get the chocolate)

1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup white rice flour
1/2 cup dried prune plums or raisins (fully dried but you could also use prunes- just be careful to add them towards the end of chopping so they don't get too mushy, or chop by hand)

1/2 cup roasted, unsalted cashews

1/3cup pumpkin seeds
2 cups porridge oats
1/4 cup chia seeds (optional) (also could use hemp seeds for a nuttier flavour)

2 eggs plus 1 egg white
1/3 cup maple syrup or honey
1/4 cup cane sugar

In a food processor chop the apricots, rice flour and dried plums until in roughly 1cm pieces. Add to large bowl, then chop the cashews- either in the processor or by smashing them with the side of a chef's knife into slightly smaller pieces. Add to bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C.

Add the oats, pumpkin and chia seeds if using (if using chocolate chips add them now). Stir until well combined.

Whisk together the eggs and egg white with the syrup then pour over the main ingredients. Sprinkle the sugar over the top and mix very well until the egg mixture has thoroughly coated the ingredients.

Pour the mixture into the buttered pan and spread out more or less evenly. Get a piece of plastic wrap/cling film large enough to cover the tray and press down onto the mixture. Using your rolling pin, roll over the top like a steam roller, and down the sides until there are no gaps and the mixture is well-compacted.

Bake for 12-13 minutes then remove from the oven and place the pan on a cooling rack.

For the Chocolate Topping:

Turn down the heat to 200°F and in a heat-proof bowl break the dark chocolate into same-size pieces and place in the oven until melted- this doesn't take long if using a stainless steel bowl. Using a spatula give the chocolate a good stir, then pour on top of the 'granola', and spread evenly. Allow the bars to cool completely, then cut into many enjoyable slices.

Tip: When cutting slices, if you dip your knife into a tall glass full of hot water, and then wipe it with a paper towel, this will minimize cracking in the chocolate and you'll get nicely shaped bars.

October 1, 2009

Yakama Plum and Armagnac Ice cream

It's been a few years since I first tasted plum and Armagnac ice cream and I haven't tasted it again until now. The heady combination can be a popular offering in trendy food shops in England, although inspired from traditional French recipes that combine Armagnac (brandy) with custard.

Generally prune plums are used in this ice cream coming from the famous Agen region in France. Oddly enough, in Canada the same plum variety exists, however it goes by the name 'Italian prune plum', and hardly costs anything compared with the extreme price tag of the semi-dried Agen prunes in English supermarkets. Now just to cause a little confusion I'm going to admit the truth and say that I guess my patience was limited...so I didn't wait the two extra weeks for the Italian prune plum season to start, and instead made the ice cream using an earlier plum variety called Yakama (where's the logic?).....a very sweet, easy to eat and egg-shaped plum originating in the Yakima valley in Washington.

When I returned to Canada I was incredibly excited at the prospect of making plum and Armagnac ice cream, and using local plums none-the-less. There was just one problem. I couldn't find the Armagnac.

Why Armagnac you ask? Why not use just any brandy? Well, it's really down to taste and admittedly a touch of exotica. It's similar to Cognac in that it is also distilled from wine, although it requires the use of different stills (I couldn't tell you much about that though), but I find the taste to be smoother, and a bit more complex and intriguing than Cognac.

As you probably guessed, Armagnac is to the Armagnac region in South-west France as Champagne is to the region of Champagne. The first time I tried to buy Armagnac in Paris I'm quite sure I did a great job (unintentionally of course) of totally insulting the wine merchant by asking for his cheapest (cooking quality) Armagnac. Alas, I was young...and a poor student, so every penny counted! Not only did I not know that the Armagnac region is one of the oldest regions in France for producing brandy (even older than Cognac), I also did not realise that it's mostly made by smaller producers, as opposed to the 'big names' coming out of Cognac, so naturally the status of the product is just as high as the price due to it's small-scale production and intensive techniques.

On our trip back to Europe this Spring I was determined to buy Armagnac. Luckily, on the way back from Spain we took the night train to Paris and decided to stay part of the day there on the way back to London. In a few fleeting hours we managed to do quite a lot, including finding both Pierre Hermé's pastry shop (love at first sight...) and an appropriate bottle of Armagnac, purchased with a 'knowing' look (hmm...sure), and with virtually no speech at all (okay, so my French isn't horrible, but given my last experience trying to buy Armagnac I stayed well away from using the phrase "less expensive" for fear of great insult).

So anyway, this ice cream turned out to be extremely yummy, and thank goodness, because 3 years is just too long a wait between sessions of ice cream enjoyment. It's a wonderfully creamy combination, mainly down to the new technique I've uncovered...hee hee...which I'll share below, and best enjoyed on its own so to appreciate the subtle flavours of the soft, sweet plum combined with a hint of brandy. You could add more brandy but you'd run the risk of the ice cream not freezing properly because of the higher alcohol content. If using Agen plums or 'Italian prune plums' then you may want to increase the sugar slightly as they're generally more tart than Yakamas.

Serves at least 10

For the fruit purée:

10 small-medium plums (a variety that is easily halved/not too fibrous)
2 tbsps water
just under 1/3 cup Armagnac/brandy
100g icing (confectioners) sugar

Halve the plums, remove pits, and stew in a saucepan over a low heat with the water and brandy until pulpy. Add the icing (confectioners) sugar then sieve the entire mixture into another bowl or blend in a really good blender until totally smooth.

For the ice cream:

This is the best method I've found for making a beautifully smooth ice cream. You make what is essentially a mousse instead of going for a traditional custard base.

500 ml whipping cream
100g granulated white sugar
150ml water
4 large egg yolks

As if making a buttercream, start by making a sugar syrup. There's no need to stir, just add the water and sugar in a small saucepan and just bring it to a boil. Put a small plate in the fridge. The syrup will take around 10 minutes until ready . You can test if the sugar syrup's at the candy ball stage by dropping a little onto the cold plate. Pick a bit off the plate and stretch it between your index finger and thumb- if the syrup creates strings between your fingers then it's ready to go. You could use a candy thermometer but this is more fun!

Place the egg yolks in a bowl and start whisking right away (an electric mixer is best), adding the syrup in a constant trickle. Keep whisking until the mixture has attained a mousse-like consistency. Whisk in the cream then gently stir in the plum purée. Pour into the ice cream maker and let churn for 25-30 minutes. Then transfer to a container and freeze for at least another 3 hours before serving.