Friday, September 14, 2012

A Beer & A Burger

Three fine beers
Beer is being crafted with more skill and range these days and there is a concomitant movement to match beer and food. Makes sense, really, as beers become more interesting they pair with more than nuts and scratchings. They can be particularly fine with serious cheeses, they reward investigation to enhance curry and other highly spiced dishes though if I'm honest I think it is a stretch too far to match any kind of beer with dessert, but that's probably just me!

West country brewer Sharp's have just released a Connoisseurs Choice range of three very different premium beers, a rich dark ale, Quadrupel, a lighter Czech style beer, Single Brew Reserve that is lemony enough to sup with fish and, my favourite, Honey Spice Tripel which smells of fruit and spice, originally brewed by Trappist monks and they certainly know how to make a decent brew. 

To coincide with their new beers Sharp's are running a competition to find great matchings of food but YOU MUST HURRY! Entries have to be in by midnight tomorrow, but hey, it's Friday and what better way to spend the first half of the weekend than to sample some new - and half price - beer create a dish to match. A wonderful challenge I think, and one that I was happy to sign up to. There is a great prize - three finalists, chosen by three star chefs, Nathan Outlaw, Jack Stein and Alyn Williams, will spend a day with 'their' chef, then compete against each other in a cook off to be crowned 'Sharp's Connoisseur for 2012'. If that is you, then you'll spend the year tasting new beers, dinner at your chef mentor's restaurant, and a tour of the brewery with a night in Cornwall. Got to be good!

I have always loved a beer with a burger so that was the route my mind took as I sipped from my elegant ale. Honey Spice is created with so much more care than a bulk standard lager so I wondered about making a burger that was much more interesting than your usual beef patty on a sesame seed bun. I love Viet lettuce wraps, bun cha, and wanted to make an Italian version, sticking with pork but pairing it with fennel, the lettuce makes for a light and delicate thing and matches well to the basil oil and salty riccota 'dipping' sauce. It's fun to eat with your fingers, to dispense with the formality of cutlery, even it you do end up with lots of lovely juices running down to your elbow!

Have to say it worked a treat. It was remarkably simple to make up all the elements. I had some cold basmati from earlier in the week. I added toasted almonds and some diced green pepper and spring onions and dressed it with a little vinaigrette to create a very light rice salad. Fresh veg is essential, took no time at all to slice crisp cucumber and a juicy tomato, the lettuce requires nothing more than rinsing. For a 'dipping' sauce I used basil oil and lemon juice emulsified with finely grated ricotta salata that made a thick and gorgeous golden liquid, perfect for my purpose. The balls are richly flavoured and have great texture as well, from the toasted fennel seeds and roughly pulsed fresh breadcrumbs. They benefit from half an hour in the fridge, more than enough time to rustle up all the other bits.

 Simple rice salad

100g cold cooked basmati rice
50g almond slivers, toasted in a dry pan till golden
1 small green pepper, deseed and diced into small squares
2 spring onions, outer layer peeled off, cut into little rings
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Add the almonds, pepper and onions to the rice and mix. Put the oil, lemon and seasoning into a screw top jar, close tightly and shake, shake, shake. Tip the dressing over the rice and mix thoroughly.

Ricotta Basil Vinaigrette

 3 tablespoons basil oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely grated ricotta salata - you could use Parmesan instead
Freshly ground  black pepper but no salt, the cheese adds all the salt you'll need

Put everything into a jar with a tightly fitting lid and shake hard till it all comes together in a not entirely attractive looking but undoubtedly fabulous tasting sauce.

Pour into a tiny serving bowl.

Pork & Fennel Balls

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 smallish onion, finely chopped
1 generous teaspoon fennel seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
 500g pork mince
3 - 4 tablespoons of chunky fresh breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a small pan, warm 1 tablespoon of olive oil and fry the garlic, onion and fennel seeds for about 5 minutes until soft and wonderfully fragrant. Set aside to cool.

To the pork mince add the cooled onion mixture, the breadcrumbs and seasoning and mix well, probably easiest done with clean hands. Roll the mixture into small balls, about the size of a walnut, put them onto a flat plate and chill in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

In a large pan heat the rest of the oil and, when hot, add the balls in a single layer. Cover with a lid and cook on a medium heat for about 5 minutes till they are nicely crusted on one side. Turn them over, cover and cook for another five minutes till they are darkly golden all over.

And now for the fun part. To assemble your wrap put a large lettuce leaf onto a plate. Add sliced tomato, cucumber, a couple of spoonfuls of rice salad, a hot ball or two and a drizzle of basil ricotta vinaigrette. Pull the edges of the lettuce to the centre, wrap firmly to encase the filling, and eat. 

It's as easy as

Three, Yum!

Monday, September 10, 2012

French Vanilla Cake

 I made a cake on the weekend, one that I'd been dreaming about for weeks, so much so that I could taste it in my mind before it ever appeared on the plate. Nielsen-Massey sent me some of their sublimely wonderful Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla products, both the extract which I always use in baking and some bean paste which was new to me and smelt divine. It was that luscious smell that made me want a French vanilla cake, the likes of which I loved as a child but which, if memory plays no tricks, was actually a packet mix, one where you just add an egg to the stuff in the box and after a quick bake - hey presto! We have cake.

I figured if it tasted that good remembering it had to be worth recreating. So I searched the net but mostly came up with things to do with the packet mix version which was really not where I wanted to go. Sorry to say I missed a masterclass with Eric Lanlard (who's patisserie is the fabulously named Cake Boy) where he made a frasier, that classic French strawberry cake. I would love to have had a slice of that and learned a trick or two about its creation but all I had was a detailed recipe for sponge and mousseline and some extraordinary decorating with strawberries and toasted marzipan and lots of dark chocolate drizzles. My excuse for not attempting it is the strawberry season is gone for the year (which is true) but I'm fairly sure I'm just not that talented. (which is also true!)

What I did have though was a fresh batch of passionfruit curd - another taste of my childhood. I could see a simpler cake by far, a sponge redolent of vanilla joined with a thick slick of curd and another of clotted cream - a passion I have developed since coming to London.The old and the new, simply dusted with icing sugar, must surely be fabulous, a last of the summer treat.

 French Vanilla Cake

350g unsalted butter, softened
350g golden caster sugar
5 medium eggs, beaten
350g plain flour, sifted
1.5 tspn baking powder
1 tspn pure vanilla bean paste
1 tspn pure vanilla extract
10ml whole milk

About 6 tablespoons of passionfruit curd, or lemon curd or strawberry jam
About 100g clotted cream - or more to taste!

 Pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Butter and line 2x20cm round sandwich tins.

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, which takes at least 5 minutes with electric beaters. Gradually add the beaten eggs, then fold in the sifted flour and baking powder, along with the vanilla bean paste, vanilla extract and milk.

Divide the mix between the two tins and bake in the preheated oven for approximately 30 minutes till the sponge is golden brown and springy to the touch.

Leave the sponges to cool in the tin for about 5 minutes then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

 Turn both cakes onto their baked top then slather the base of one with passionfruit curd and the other with generous quantities of clotted cream, then join together to make cakey heaven. Dust with icing sugar and eat in big slices.

It was a really tasty cake, tasting richly of vanilla, but I must confess I slightly undercooked it and the middle was not properly cooked through. Note to self, use a skewer to double check until you understand 'springy to the touch'. Not so disastrous that it couldn't be eaten, but next time - and there will definitely be a next time - I'll give it a couple more minutes.