Quick tip: mashing potatoes

Cook your potatoes unpeeled, which helps stop them going soggy and which may better preserve their nutritional content.

Then mash them using a potato ricer or a French ‘moulin à legumes’, still with their skins on. The skins stay behind in your chosen device and you get better quality mash.

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Quick tip: cleaning vegetables

 

Titchy vegetables can be difficult, or even impossible, to peel correctly – let alone the New Wisdom which tells us not to peel to take best advantage of the nutrients available.

We used to peel veg in order to ensure they were thoroughly cleaned of the animal excrement used as fertiliser; this is less of a problem now. So instead of peeling try soaking your vegetables in cold water for a few minutes and then washing them using a washing up sponge (‘A bit of green’, as my mother used to call it). You may want to keep one just for this purpose; you can also use a washing up brush, or even a nail brush, to the same effect.

A bit of green also works wonders when you have a rack of lamb where you want to scrape the bones clean to impress your visitors/chef.

A quick tip: pastry removal

Being short of time and long on ideas, I thought I’d start up a series of quick tips I’ve picked up over the years.

First tip: When you’ve been making pastry, dough, bread – anything like that – it can be difficult to wash your hands and get rid of all the dough sticking to your fingers.

Instead of washing your hands with soap and warm water, try soap and COLD water. Works like a charm. The warm water livens up the dough and makes it stickier; cold water calms it down and allows you to rub it off more easily.

Tapenade

This is a very old, very Mediterranean dish – squished up olives, garlic, anchovies and capers. Cato the Elder wrote about it; the Greeks probably had it, too, since the Romans nicked many of their recipes from them.

Now, it’s a Provençal dish – tapenade comes from the Occitan word Tapenas, which means capers. So, don’t let anyone tell you the capers are optional.

Originally the olives would be squished up in a pestle and mortar; now I do it with my trusty stick blender.

I take one jar of green olives, 500g dry weight (it’s about a kilo with the water inside too – I drain out the water, obviously). To this I add a jar of anchovies (100g), the oil inside as well; half a jar of capers (30g of capers), and two – four cloves of garlic, depending on how old the garlic is and how many of my wife’s aunts vampires I need to repel.

All this gets squished down into the olive jar with the stick mixer. I drizzle in some olive oil – just enough to get it moving, really, otherwise it becomes a dipping sauce rather than a spreading paste. Say, 25-50ml.

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This is my favourite olive oil, the ‘intense’ Picholine from what used to be called Moulin des Costières and is now the Oliveraie Jeanjean. It’s sipping-quality olive oil, not for glugging or quaffing, at around €25 a litre.

 

Keep mixing with the stick mixer until it forms a fairly smooth paste. Some people like lumps in their tapenade, some like it to be completely smooth. Up to you.

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Some people add other things to their tapenade: onion, herbs, lemon juice, brandy – as I’ve said before, peasant foods like this, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, tartiflette and all the rest are made with whatever you have lying around at the time.

 

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Spread it on croutons. I make mine by slicing up baguette or, here, some of the fennel and sesame seed loaves I made yesterday, adding a little olive oil, some herbes de Provence and a very little salt, then baking them in the oven at 200°C for 20 minutes, turning the baking tray once to ensure they’re evenly coloured.

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I usually make tapenade with green olives simply because they’re the easiest to find which have already been de-stoned, but in fact I prefer black tapenade personally. Black olives have more depth of flavour for me, but they’re less common and more expensive.

Black olives are more expensive as they stay on the trees for longer – black ones are riper than green ones. But leaving them on the trees costs money (time=money, remember) and also runs a greater risk of them being hit with a frost, which ruins the harvest.

Note also that properly cured ‘black’ olives are usually violet-dark purple in colour, not midnight black as you often see them in shops. Those that are very black have often been coloured with food dye.

We do get olives from the tree in our garden and I try to let them go black normally before curing them. But that’s a story for another day. Today, it’s tapenade on a crouton with a glass of Muscat before Sunday lunch.

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Real men eat quiche and like it

Bruce Feirstein’s book* came out while I was at university. It was a something of a shock, really – I quite liked quiche, so was a bit disappointed to discover that it made me an unreal man. I shrugged off the pain and the hurt eventually, though, and have been making and eating quiche ever since.

It’s originally German – ‘Quiche’ comes from the German word ‘Kuchen’ or cake – but from the part of Germany which is now French and called Lorraine, hence Quiche Lorraine, an open flan with smoked bacon. Add onions and it’s Quiche Alsacienne, also a now-French part of Germany.

Whatever; it’s really easy to make, especially if, like me, you cannot be faffed to mix flour and water and some fat together to make pastry. Frankly, a euro buys very nice pastry of many kinds here so I’m right out of faff when it comes to pastry.

I usually make two at a time, because. Well, because everyone in the family loves it basically and if I only make one there’s none left for me by the time I get out of the kitchen to the dining table.

I unroll the bought puff pastry into a round baking tin, using the paper it’s wrapped in to line the tin, then ensure the side bits are well formed up the sides of the tin.

Next, I fill it with my baking beans (some old white beans from somewhere, no idea how long I’ve had them now.) Ensure that you put a circle of greaseproof or silicone paper in the base of the quiche first or the beans will stick into the pastry. Ask me how I know. OK, I know because last time I forgot the lining.

Bake it for 10-15 minutes – this, you can tell your less professional friends, is ‘Blind baking’.  I also pierce the pastry many times with a fork to allow the steam to escape – it’s this expanding steam inside puff pastry which makes it rise.

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My baking beans about to stick to the pastry because I forgot to line the inside of the pastry with greaseproof paper.

Once that’s done, I take out the beans and allow it to cool while mixing the filling, and despite what traditionalists will try to insist you can add more or less anything you like. I’ve even made chocolate and marshmallow quiches which went down very well.

This time I made an Alsacienne, with bacon and onions, and a tuna and sun-dried tomato quiche which my wife Delphine and I loved and which the girls Scarlett and Roxanne would not touch because it looks suspiciously as though it contains vegetables (6 and 8 year olds are, as every parent knows, allergic to vegetables).

200g of lardons and 200g – approximately – of onions does the job.

The ‘appareil’, the mixture I make up in a jug, contains 200ml of cream (I use 30% fat content just because that’s what’s most widely sold in France, I’d use double/40% if I could find it), a healthy pinch of salt, some ground pepper and three whole eggs which all get whizzed up using my faithful stick mixer.

I  add 100-200g of grated cheese to the base of the tart, then spread the bacon lardons (or tuna and chopped sun-dried tomatoes or the grated chocolate and chopped marshmallows) on top of that, then finish by pouring the appareil over that. My wife’s family has a tradition of spreading a thick layer of mustard onto the base of the tart whenever they make tuna quiche. Tastes quite nice, but you need a LOT of mustard to be able to taste it at all. Into the oven for 15 minutes at 180°C, turn it round 180° and give it another 5-10 minutes. Until, basically, it doesn’t wobble any more in the middle when you shake it gently.

It rises somewhat when you take it out of the oven and, if you can, serve it right now. Otherwise it will fall but still taste delicious.

* Yes, I am aware that it was a satirical book. No, I do not think that I am unreal. Or undead. I may be unlikely, however.

Crème brulée

So let’s get the history out of the way: No, it wasn’t invented at Cambridge University in the 19th century; it existed at least as far back as the 17th century in France, Catalan, Flanders and elsewhere. Because frankly, the idea of mixing together eggs, milk and cream isn’t something that takes hundreds of years of thought to come up with.

And yes, some people call it ‘burnt cream’. Some people also eat burgers while walking down the road.

There’s a line, somewhere, between crème brulée, flans, crème patissière, custard, crème anglaise and all the other set creams. Not to mention pana cotta, custard cream and so on.

I have two recipes for crème brulée: a refined one using just egg yolks, cream and sugar; and this quick and dirty one which is, I confess, more like a flan than a real crème brulée. Whatev.

This one calls for a dozen whole eggs – not yolks separated out, whole eggs; I told you this one was quick and dirty – 1.4 litres of cream and milk mixed in whatever proportions you like – I used 40cl of cream and a litre of milk this time – 200g of sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt. I put a pinch of salt in lots of things.

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whizz them together with the mixer of your choice. I used a hand-held stick mixer this time. You just need them all combined together.

I then pour this mixture into a jug as it makes the next stage, pouring into ramekins, easier.

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These quantities gave me enough mixture for 18 ramekins.

I set them in a baking tray and add boiling water to the tray, about halfway up the sides of the ramekin. This bain marie ensures that the crèmes don’t burn on the bottom – water keeps the temperature to a maximum of 100°C. Top tip: put the bain marie as close to your oven as possible, then add the water to save carrying a heavy, boiling hot pan across your kitchen.

They go into a warm oven at about 150°C for 20 minutes when I turn them around to ensure they cook evenly. I check them again after 20 minutes to see if they’re set – just shake the baking tray gently to see how they wobble. If the mixture in the centre of each ramekins wobbles more than the outside, they’re not quite cooked yet. When the mixture wobbles as one, they’re done. If the tops are starting to brown and they’re still not set, cover with aluminium foil to stop them browning further. This time it took 45 minutes for everything to be set properly

Once cooked, remove them from the oven and the bain marie and allow to cool before refrigerating them.

Just before serving, sprinkle a half teaspoon or so of sugar on top and caramelise it with your blowtorch – I now use one which uses cigarette lighter refill fluid, although I’ve used regular plumbers’ ones before.

Allow the caramel to cool and harden before eating.

You can flavour the crème with many different things: I’ve used basil, rosemary, lemon verbena, lavender and other herbs from the garden many times. You heat up the milk and/or cream with the herb in it and allow it to infuse for an hour or so before making the crème.

You can also add fruits in the bottom of the ramekin – strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, banana, whatever takes your fancy.

 

Meringues

I have said – boasted, even – elsewhere that the only electrical device I use in a kitchen is a hand-held immersion blender. A cheap one, to boot, a €10 device bought from Lidl, Europe’s favourite discount supermarket chain.

This is a lie.

I also have a hand-held mixer. For mixing cake mix and for whipping up meringues.

But that’s all.

I have an excuse. A reason. A medical note, even, for straying from the hand-beaten path: carpal tunnel syndrome. 25 years typing on keyboards as a journalist followed by 7 years chopping, cutting and dicing ingredients in restaurant kitchens did for both my wrists. To the point, in fact, that I have permanently lost a sizeable portion of the use of both hands, even after corrective surgery, and am now declared officially Unfit For Kitchen Work by the Medecin de Travail, the work doctor whose word is law in France. It would actually be illegal for me to work as a professional restaurant cook now.

This is all a long way round to say that I use a hand mixer to make meringues. Making meringues is the only time in my life when I wish I had a stand mixer, a big old Kenwood like my mother had for 20 years before giving it to me and which I wore out after another 10 years of use.

And then I think about the other things I’d rather do with €500 and continue holding on to the hand mixer as it beats the meringue mix until my wrists simply can’t take it any more. Yes, even holding an electric mixer is painful, which is why I wish I had a stand mixer.

But, as the French say, you can’t have your butter and the money for the butter so I spend that €500 on something more useful, like food for my children or books. Mostly books, actually. And foie gras.

Meringues are not really difficult to make: you use the egg whites left over after making crème brulée,  crème anglaise, crème pâtissière, crème whatever. You add 75g of sugar per egg white little by little as you beat the egg whites. That’s it.

Well, OK, there are a few points.

First, when you’ve finished separating the whites from the yolks, making sure there’s no  yolk at all in the whites, put the whites in the fridge. Get them and the bowl you’re going to beat them in nice and cold. Same as for whipping cream, cold is your friend. Put the beaters for your mixer in there too if you like, can’t do any harm. Make sure everything is scrupulously clean. Then you’ll have only yourself to blame when it doesn’t work.

Start beating the whites on the lowest speed to break them up a little, throwing in a couple of pinches of salt. For the 12 whites I used in this recipe, I put three decent three-finger pinches.

When they’ve broken up, turn the speed up on high and start pouring in the sugar. I do this from the packet – the recipe calls for 75g of sugar per white so 12 x 75 = 900g. I put 100g into my vanilla sugar box and just poured the rest of the 1kg packet into the meringue mix bit by bit.

So, this will make French meringue. It gets fairly stiff and will hold a medium peek, but as you can see in this picture they don’t always hold up perfectly after piping them out:

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Some do, some don’t. Your piping technique will also have an effect, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

If you want good, stiff peaks and meringues that hold their shape then you need to make Italian meringues, not French ones. The ingredients are the same except to make Italian meringues you need to heat the sugar to 115°C, which is quite hot. You slowly drizzle this hot sugar into your beaten egg whites as you keep stirring, which is hard to do if you don’t have either a stand mixer or a third hand. Or a commis. I have a commis but she’s 8 years old and I’m reluctant to let her near molten sugar.

So, French meringue it is. As you can maybe see in the picture above, the meringue should take on a glossy sheen when it’s getting towards being beaten enough. And, of course, when you lift the whisk up the mix should form a peak which holds its shape well.

There are schools of thought about when to add the sugar – before, during, after or a combination thereof. Me, I get it going and then as the egg whites start to get their form I start drizzling in the sugar, slower or quicker depending on my mood and what’s on the radio.

The real secret to meringues, if there is one, is to beat them for MUCH longer than you think is necessary. Time yourself and see how long it takes to get them to the point where you think they’re OK; now beat them for the same amount of time again. They’ll get much stiffer. Me, I beat them until I can’t bear to hold the mixer any longer and my 8-year-old commis has gone to make meringues in her Minecraft kitchen.

And then you pipe them out onto a baking sheet or dollop them onto it with a big spoon

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You see giant dolloped-with-a-big-spoon meringues in many French patisseries being sold pretty cheaply, €1-€1.50 each as the patissiers try to get rid of their excess egg whites – most creams and crèmes are made with just egg yolks so there’s always a surplus of whites. Which is why, incidentally, there’s a wealth of patissiers around the Seine river in Paris: vintners importing wine by barge from Burgundy and Bordeaux into the capital used egg whites to clarify their wines, giving them an excess of egg yolks which were snapped up cheaply by medieval patissiers who set up shop near the river.

Anyway, choose the form you like.

The results go into the oven to dry, not bake – if they’re coloured at all they’re overcooked – at 80°C for 3-6 hours, depending on their size.

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Professional patissiers and restaurant kitchens have ovens with ‘ouilles’, vents you can open to let out moist air from the interior. Domestic ovens mostly don’t, so I prop mine open half a centimetre or so with a folded tea towel. It helps the drying process go quicker.

When I worked with Jean-Remi Joly he used to dust his perfectly identical baby meringues (served as mignardises with after dinner coffee) with chocolate or cinnamon powder. One day he tried dusting on the powder just before putting them in the oven and the resulting colour and taste were gorgeous, so I recommend trying that if you like such things.

Otherwise you can mix in flavourings like strawberry coulis or pistachios when the mixture is fully beaten.

I pipe the meringues onto greaseproof/silicon paper, which seems to be the easiest thing to unstick them from; you can test if a meringue is cooked sufficiently by trying to peel it off the paper – if it leaves its base on the paper it’s not yet dry enough, keep cooking it.

 

Tartiflette

Several people have asked for details on how to make this, so here we go.

You need potatoes, lardons, onions, cream, milk, salt and pepper. And grated cheese. And butter.

Slice up the onions fairly thinly – about 1-2mm slices. Put them in a pan with hot butter and the lardons and fry them off until the onions are transparent and the lardons cooked through.

While this is cooking, slice your potatoes. I cut them 2mm thick using a mandoline (details on mandolines here – bonus chip recipe!) – be careful not to cut your fingers.

You need enough potatoes sliced to roughly fill your chosen container – I use a Pyrex dish, something more rustic is fine. I don’t bother peeling the potatoes first because I’m lazy and the skin’s good for you.

Put the potatoes in the dish, pour in enough cream and milk to almost cover them, put the lardons over the top and squish them into the crevices and in between the slices of potatoes.

Cover with a piece of tin foil and pop into the oven at 180°C for an hour. Uncover and check the potatoes are cooked, then sprinkle over a couple of handfuls of grated cheese, then back into the oven for another 10 minutes. Finish it with a few minutes under the grill if you like it really crispy.

A couple of notes:

  1. Yes, you can add garlic, either minced up with the onion or just cut a piece in half and wipe it around the inside of your baking dish. I don’t do this because my young daughters find the taste too strong.
  2. Yes, you can add Reblochon cheese to the recipe. The problem with this is its price – the entire cost of the above version of the recipe is about €2; adding €12-15 worth of Reblochon changes the economics completely.
  3. No you can’t add mushrooms. Mushrooms? Really?
  4. Actually you can add anything you want. Except white wine, as Felicity Cloake does in The Guardian. That’s just wrong.

A day cooking with Scarlett

I hope that, when I’m even older and creakier, my daughters will continue their love of cooking. Right now at 6 and 8 they love cooking with Papa; we’ll see if it continues, but it’s a good start.

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First things first, write out your prep list. This is very important – work out what needs to be done first and so on. No point working on the meringues first since they take 4 or 5 hours to dry out in the oven so we put them in last, otherwise the oven’s out of use while they do their stuff.

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We made the madeleines first, the full recipe – 9 eggs, 500g sugar mixed to the ribbon stage, 400g of softened butter, 400g flour, baking powder, the lot. We made dozens and dozens of them in the end.

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Three bags full in fact, as it were.

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Best part of baking is, of course, licking the bowl clean afterwards.

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Then we made brioches. Two of them, one smooth and one gnarly – someone in the house likes chunky crusts.

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Not me, I like a smooth crust.

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Then we made quiche. Two in fact.

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One with onions and bacon lardons, the second with tuna and sun-dried tomatoes.

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And Tartiflette and rosemary and thyme ciabbata.

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Tartiflette is very popular in our house, so we made two of them.

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And then we got to the meringues with the egg whites left over from making a dozen crème brulées – which I forgot to photograph, it’s true. But hey, they’re all the same. Ours were vanilla flavoured today as the lavender plants’ flowers are over now.

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The little meringues piped ready to go into the oven to dry. The little ‘blobs’ on the sheet next to the meringues are drops of mixture under the baking paper to hold it down while I pipe the meringues themselves.

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Some of the larger ones at the top of the oven, and two giant ones lurking at the bottom. When you’re 8 years old, the bigger the meringue the better.

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Unlike commercial ovens, my domestic oven doesn’t have vents at the top you can open to let out the moist air, so I prop the door open slightly with a teatowel. Works fine.

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The finished baby meringues. They won’t last long in our house.

To round out the day we made 4 litres of yoghurt – 4 litres of milk, 4 small tubs of activated yoghurt, leave it in the warm oven (50°C) overnight. One litre gets strawberry syrup, one litre gets chocolate powder, and the final two litres are strained down to just one litre of thick Greek-style yoghurt to eat with honey for breakfast.

A good haul for the day in the end: 2 quiches, a few dozen madeleines, 12 crème brulées, half a litre of ice cream, two tartiflettes, two brioches, a ciabatta and 4 litres of yoghurt. I think that’s everything.