July 28, 2013

Seasonal regional: puckering up

While I suspect that winter isn't ready to leave us just yet a few milder days have hinted at the promise of spring. So, with the house delicately perfumed by jonquils and a desire to freshen things up, it felt like the perfect time to play with some of the more invigorating members of the Rutaceae family in cumquats and grapefruit.

Renowned for being exquisitely sour, eating either raw is certainly not to everyone's tastes. But, take a few simple embellishments that help balance out the bitterness and you're left with two aromatic and uniquely flavoured fruits that are easy for everyone to enjoy. For instance, I found that grapefruit grilled to sweet caramel with a sprinkling of sugar and star anise made for a most refreshing start to the day.

And, thanks to some early season avocados, combined brilliantly with coriander fresh from mum's garden for a clean and virtuous Sunday lunch.

Of course, preserves are the first thing that come to mind when you find yourself with fruit in-excess, so there was also a quick, vanilla-flecked grapefruit jam, which, when spread thickly over a dense and fragrant coconut bread, made for a cracking afternoon tea.

The cumquats being riper than ripe on receipt also went straight to marmalade, and so became the perfect excuse to indulge in one of my all-time favourite desserts.

The epitome of comfort, when the weather's closed in and you find yourself in need of some relief from the many distresses in life, I find there are few better things with which to escape than marmalade sponge pudding.

July 14, 2013

Midweek madness: a wintry hodgepodge

Unsettled times in kitchen TPB, so it's a random array of new delectations for you to devour this week. With the post-holiday blues well and truly in full swing there were some stubborn summer throwbacks with this fresh and speedy cauliflower couscous and some of Mr Lepard's yoghurt flatbreads with harissa honey chicken.

The couscous, as you'd expect, was refreshingly light, and while the flatbreads themselves do take some time, a little pre-week preparation and you'll have yourself some cracking supplies for sandwiches.

Staples were revisited with this sweet and spicy shakshuka, another favourite for those nights when you really can't be bothered and need something to help counter that gloomy winter chill.

A request to "bring snacks" led to the discovery of Mr Slater's wonderful green olive and parsley focaccia, which is not only delicious in it's own right but has a topping that works exceptionally well tossed through pasta.

And, having been struck down by a frustratingly stubborn malaise, there was also plenty of garlic- and ginger-packed homemade chicken broth poured over udon, salmon and greens. Now that's what I call a perfect sixteen minute supper.

July 7, 2013

Technical challenge: Pastéis de nata

"As the most popular cakes in Portugal, you can find them everywhere. Until you go home from your holiday and you are left bereft.
- Lucy Pepper & Célia Pedroso, Eat Portugal

On a recent trip for work I was fortunate to spend a couple of days in Lisbon, and while this was in no way enough time to begin exploring what seems an extraordinarily beautiful city, I did manage to squeeze in a quick bakery tour of Belém thanks to the fabulously delightful Célia and Filomena of Eat Drink Walk Lisbon.

Birthplace of pastel de nata, the Portuguese tart, it is believed that these pastéis were created by monks at the local Belém monastery as a means for using up egg yolks leftover from the large quantity of eggs whose whites were used in wineries and for starching nuns' habits. To this day the district remains a mecca for hungry sweet-tooths with the nearby pastelariaPastéis de Belém, rumoured to produce tens of thousands of these famous little pastries each day.

A Chique de Belém is equally renowned for making some of the best pastéis de nata in the country and it was here, thanks to an exceptionally generous host, that we were treated to a tour of the kitchen along with a heavenly array of Portuguese treats.

My time there, of course, went far too quickly but, arriving home inspired and with a few traditional tricks in hand, I figured that if I couldn't enjoy the real thing then I should at least give my own pastéis a go. Most nervous about getting the pastry right a stash of homemade puff had me off to a good start, and as I moved on to the all-important custard I quickly realised that I'd managed to mess things up before I'd even begun.

Timing the boiling of milk and the melting of sugar to 'soft ball' stage at exactly the same time was always going to prove difficult, but it was the discovery that I had only raw caster sugar available that really threw a spanner in the works. You see, while this doesn't necessary affect taste that much, it is downright impossible to melt raw sugar without some form of colouration and so what should have been a gloriously yolky yellow custard instead turned out to be more of a coffee creme. Not stopping there I also managed to add further insult by overcooking them somewhat, which meant that they weren't as luxuriously smooth as the versions I'd enjoyed in Belém. But despite these few hiccups my pastéis still tasted ok and so if only practice makes perfect, then that's one burden I'm willing to bear.

What I was happy with, however, were the cases, with their beautifully layered bottoms and wonderful, crispy exterior. While their diminutive stature and flat edges left me still coveting the traditional tins, the fact that I came even close with the layering was pretty (and somewhat embarrassingly) exciting.

So simple and yet so delicious, it's easy to understand why pastéis de nata have become such a national treasure. A craft unto themselves they require great skill to produce to perfection, and while this is something I'm obviously still yet to acquire, for now I'm happy just working on it...