Monday, 28 June 2010

Coffee cupcakes

The last few years have brought a huge trend for macarons and cupcakes (at least in Britain) which I pretty much didn't subscribe to. Most macarons I had tried were pretty chewy and tasteless (until I realised that you have to have the ones from Ladurée to be able to tell why they are so exceptional!) and most cupcakes looked to me like something geared towards 3-year-olds, with their radioactive Technicolor looks and Barbie-doll decorations (come on, who needs a butterfly on top of their "small muffin"?). However, there are some that break the mould, and I discovered a few interesting cupcake recipes in the exceptional book Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache (which I've written about in a more than a few past posts).

The book calls these Cappuccino cupcakes, but sometimes too much embellishment is not really needed, and since these don't contain any real coffee (let alone any cappuccino!) I've converted my adapted recipe into just Coffee cupcakes. Another worry that I always have with cupcakes is the amount of butter and the extreme sweetness of the icing, which (although I have a relatively sweet tooth) I always found too much for my taste. This version uses mascarpone and less butter than the average, which makes a much creamier and lighter icing, and I reduced the sugar in the recipe, upping at the same time the amount of mascarpone, which made the result even less sweet, and really well-balanced.

After icing them, I put them in the fridge for the icing to set, and I discovered they they are great even cool, served with some vanilla ice-cream. I took some to the office and they were a great success, so I guess I'll be changing my mind about cupcakes, at least about the non-Technicolor variety! They look great, they're very light and moist, and they go fantastically well with some iced coffee...

Coffee cupcakes
Source: Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache

Makes 12

  • 2 eggs
  • 160g caster sugar
  • 200g peeled and finely grated sweet potato
  • 100g flour
  • 100g ground almonds
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp Camp chicory and coffee essence

For the icing

  • 50g cold butter
  • 170g icing sugar
  • 60g mascarpone
  • 2 tsp Camp chicory and coffee essence

Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl for 5 minutes, add the grated sweet potato and whisk again to incorporate. Add the flour, ground almonds, baking powder, salt and coffee essence and mix again.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cupcake cases, spoon the mix into the cases and bake for 20 minutes.

For the icing, cut the cold butter into cubes and whisk until it is pale and fluffy. Add 100g of the icing sugar and whisk to create a paste, beating for an extra 10 seconds. Add the mascarpone and coffee essence, along with the rest of the icing sugar, and mix by hand with a wooden spoon, until everything is incorporated. Keep the icing in the fridge until the cupcakes are out of the oven and have cooled down. After the cupcakes are completely cool, put the icing in a piping bag and decorate, adding a chocolate coffee bean on top of each cupcake.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Pitarakia (Greek cheese pies)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I come from a Greek island called Milos. I don't literally "come from" it, as I was born and raised in Athens, and only spent 3.5 months there for holidays every year, but in Greece it's very weird... since almost everyone in Greece actually lives in Athens, when people ask you where you're from, you can't actually say "Athens", so you say you're from where your parents come from. And for me, it's both parents that come from Milos, so my "homeland status" is doubly reinforced!

As many places in Greece, Milos has a few local delicacies that can not be found (at least in exactly the same form) in any other place. I don't necessarily like them all, but the one I really love is these cheese pies that my mom and grandmother made me since I can remember myself, either for just the close family, or for big feasts in the garden where more than 30 people were invited. They are called Pitarakia in Greek, which actually means "little pies", and they are extremely simple, but extremely tasty at the same time. There is an unnamed local cheese that a few farmers in Milos produce (we call it "Milos cheese"), which is yellow, very dry and salty, and is rubbed with the olive sediment that remains after the olives are pressed to produce olive oil. The cheese is then matured in clay pots for 6-12 months and the rind removed before eating, and that is what is used as a filling for the Pitarakia, mixed with a lighter-flavoured cheese.

Since I can not always get relatives to send me some of this wonderful cheese (it lasts for quite a long time in the fridge, but disappears quickly in my house!), the best substitute I've found after trying lots and lots of cheeses is pecorino sardo, a Sardinian hard cheese which is not as well-known in the UK as the similarly named pecorino romano. I usually find this in the Borough Market, and although it's not cheap, it's definitely worth the money if you're making this recipe. Otherwise you can try pecorino romano, which is more commonly available, but reduce the amount of emmental by a few spoonfuls.

Pitarakia (Greek cheese pies from Milos)
Source: My mother's recipe, passed down to her by my grandmother

Makes 20-25

  • 500g flour
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp vinegar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 150g pecorino sardo (don't confuse this with pecorino romano, it has to be the really hard salty variety of pecorino, you can find a really good one in the Borough Market)
  • 100g emmental (in Greece I use Regato, which is an Irish cheese that weirdly enough you can't find in Britain)
  • 1 tbsp dried mint
  • Sunflower oil for frying

In a big bowl make a well in the flour and pour the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Mix with a fork and gradually add between 1 and 1 ½ cups of lukewarm water, kneading the dough until it becomes soft and stops sticking (if you need more water, gradually add some more, as I do the recipe by eye I'm never sure about how much water exactly it might take). Leave to rest for 30 minutes.

Grate the cheeses and mix in a bowl with the dried mint. Roll out the dough to a 2mm thickness and cut circles out (I use an upside down small plate, the one that came with my espresso cup to be more specific, about 15cm in diameter). Fill one half of the circles with a heaped teaspoonful of the cheese mixture and fold into half-moon shapes, pressing down all around with the tip of a fork to make little lines and close in the filling securely.

Warm up the sunflower oil in a large frying pan over a high heat, and once hot add the little pies and reduce the heat to medium high. They will puff up very quickly, turn them when they get golden and as soon as the other side is cooked pick them out with a slotted spoon and put them in a plate lined with kitchen paper, so that the excess oil can be absorbed.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Taste of London and a wild mushroom and truffle risotto

If you're a Londoner and interested in food, you will have definitely heard of the "culinary event of the year" (or otherwise you might have been hiding under a rock, ice cream van, sushi platter or similar...), the Taste of London "exhibition" which took place last weekend.

Unlike most food bloggers who are drooling around the net, sharing praise like chocolate-covered ants (yeap, those usually don't go down well, as a colleague discovered when she brought some to the office and someone almost threw up after not realising what it was and having one – but I digress!), I am not really a Taste-of-London-aholic. I attended last Christmas' event, imaginatively named the "Taste of Christmas" and again this summer's Taste of London, only because I was lucky to win tickets for it both times. The tickets included £15 worth of crowns for two, so in total £30 which is a nice amount, especially since it was free and it was to be spent solely on food.

Now the only gripe I have with the Taste of London and similar "paid" events, is that, although it charges exorbitant amounts of rent to the exhibitors, the organisers subsequently charge equally exorbitant amounts for the attendants' tickets. £22, which was the cheapest available pre-booked and non-offer ticket, buys you "just entrance", and if you want to eat or drink anything substantial, that's extra. In order to boost profits even more, a special currency (called "crowns") is used, which is essentially little bits of paper you exchange for real money, as in some stalls you can only pay with those (in others you can pay with "real" money, but if you want THAT specific thing, which is not sold with "real" money, you just HAVE to have crowns to get it).

I admit you get to try a few freebies, from interesting producers and suppliers that otherwise maybe you wouldn't have the chance to see gathered in one place, but you can do the same in the Borough market, Broadway market, or Covent Garden food market (to mention just a few) without paying for entrance. Having experienced this twice, I know I wouldn't pay the price, as for the same money you can go to any of the restaurants advertised (at least if you're in London) and pay the same. Seriously, the whole deal is that "you can sample dishes from restaurants that you would otherwise maybe not afford", but that is also a bit of a hoax. Example: I wanted to try Salt Yard's famed Courgette Flowers stuffed with Goats Cheese and drizzled with honey. They were £5 a plate (or rather the equivalent in "crowns") and it was actually 1 courgette flower stuffed with goats cheese and drizzled with honey. Now I've never been to Salt Yard, and I appreciated the chance to try this dish in an "al fresco" (i.e. freezing at 10°C) environment, but I found it a bit weird that the same dish is actually £7.40 in their menu, and I'm pretty sure it's not a single courgette flower that they serve (whomever has eaten it at the restaurant, please, please tell me how many flowers there are!). So, in a few words, Taste of London is NOT cheap, you can get the same things for almost the same price (or better) elsewhere, but there's the "festival atmosphere" and chance to try new things for free that weigh on the pros side.

Now that my whining is over, I can tell you what I tried. Apart from the aforementioned courgette flower, we also had some steak from Salt Yard (ok, but have had much much better, even from ASDA), lots of prosciutto di parma, parmiggiano (where I heard the monumental conversation "what cheese is this?" "Parmesan" "And which country is it from?" – Come on besuited man with totally unsuitable shoes for a park, you paid more than £30 to come and eat here and you don't even know what...Parmesan is?) and the rest of the money was spent on little treats.

I got a coconut and a lemongrass macaroon from Ladurée (my partner got a chocolate and a raspberry one) and we both ate little bites off each others'. The lemongrass one was divine, the rest I wasn't too impressed by, but then macaroons are not my favourite thing in the world (ice cream is, which I couldn't eat as it was so freezing cold in the park!). We also got two chocolate truffles from Paul A. Young's stand at the end of the day, a quick way to spend our remaining crowns with something of excellent quality as usual! A slice of banana cake followed, a big sweet loaf (to take home) and a small Sachertorte from Demel (in the second photo from the top), which was a bit too sweet for my taste, and not as moist as I expected.

But the star buy of the day was a £5 truffle from Azienda Agricola San Pietro A Pettine. This was a black summer truffle the size of a ping pong ball, and these are the most affordable kind, if it had been a winter one it would have taken all our crowns to buy it! I have bought truffles before, from the Borough market, and this was great for making two dishes for 2 people, of which I decided the first one would be a wild mushroom and truffle risotto, not a very summery recipe, but since it was so cold this weekend it went down really well, followed by some cuddling in the sofa with our feet covered with a blanket (hope a "continuous" summer starts soon!). I had already bought some pretty wild mushrooms from the Borough Market on Friday, which were yummy and gave some extra woodiness to the risotto, but if you can't find any fresh ones you can use dried ones, soaked for 30 minutes in hot water, and then you can use the soaking liquid as part of the stock base (don't forget to pass it through a sieve first).

Wild mushroom and truffle risotto
Source: dulcis in fundo

Serves 2

  • 175g arborio risotto rice
  • 5tbsp butter
  • 100ml dry white wine
  • 300g fresh wild mushrooms (I used a selection from Turnips at the Borough Market)
  • 500ml mushroom stock (I use mushroom stock cubes from Whole Foods)
  • ½ a small truffle (the size of a ping pong ball)
  • 75g grated parmesan
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • Tiny pinch of nutmeg

Clean the mushrooms gently with a brush. Heat 3 tbsp of the butter in a large non-stick saucepan and fry the mushrooms until they have released their juices. Add the rice and fry for 2 minutes over a medium heat, stirring until well coated with the butter. Add the wine and simmer until absorbed by the rice.

Gradually add the hot mushroom stock to the pan, a ladleful at a time, stirring between each addition to allow the liquid to be completely absorbed (it should take around 30 minutes). Stir in the Parmesan and last 2 tbsp of butter, serve and shave the truffle very thinly over the risotto (I used a vegetable/potato slicer, but a really sharp knife might do the job too).

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Raspberry, lime and kirsch sorbet and a culinary present

My Greek friend Eleni, whom I know since childhood, recently came to visit us in London, and being a foodie herself she brought me this amazing culinary gift, a necklace with a little cooking pot, fork and spoon. I thought it was adorable and I had to share it with you here! It seems Greek artists/jewellers are becoming more and more inventive, and my friend told me that she also bought a similarly-themed ring for herself (can't wait to see it when I next go to Athens!).

While Eleni was here, she indulged in her love of "fruit-that-can-not-be-found-in-Greece", meaning raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and so on, but her definite favourite being raspberries, and having just bought a brand new ice cream machine, I got inspired and made my first ice cream creation - a raspberry sorbet.

Sorbets are quite basic recipe-wise, and usually consist of three ingredients, water, sugar and the fruit of choice. I wanted this to be a bit more exciting than plain raspberry-flavoured, so I infused the sugar syrup with some lime zest and added some fruity alcohol for an extra bit of yum! Since raspberries are in season, I managed to find some overripe ones in the "reduced to clear" section of my supermarket, and grabbed two packs for 60p each! It worked even better for me, as the raspberries were as ripe as I wanted them (a bit too ripe to eat perhaps, but perfect for mashing) and the sorbet ended up being much cheaper and of course much tastier than shop-bought. I was really happy when my friend's husband-to-be told me it was even better than the one he had in Scoop, which I consider one of the best places to have ice cream in London. (By the way, they need to update their website with the calendar for the 2010 events, as we went there for the "molecular gelato" day and were a bit disappointed that there was no Heston Blumenthalesque shenanigans going on.

All in all this took me about an hour to make, 30 minutes preparation and 30 minutes in the ice cream machine. It was extremely good, probably the best sorbet I've tried in my life and it disappeared very quickly. The ice cream machine I got was a bit expensive (about £60 including postage), but if you love ice cream and sorbets it's worth investing in one. The freshness of the ice cream is incomparable, and you can make whatever flavours you like, without being restricted by the limited variety of shop-bought ones. Now that I got the hang of it, prepare for a summer of sorbet and ice cream posts, I can't praise this machine enough!

Raspberry, lime and kirsch sorbet
Source: dulcis in fundo

Makes about 800ml

  • 190g sugar
  • 200g water
  • 300g ripe raspberries
  • 3 big chunks of lime peel (equal to the peel of 1/3 of a lime)
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • A big glug of kirsch (according to taste, I put 5 tbsp in mine)

Put the water, sugar and lime peel in a saucepan and warm up until the sugar has melted. Boil for 1 minute and set aside to cool. After it's cooled a bit add the lime juice, move it to a suitable container (I use a plastic measuring jug) and put it in the freezer, so it can cool quickly.

Clean the raspberries of any "bad" bits (if required) and wash thoroughly. Put in a blender and liquidise. Pass through a thin sieve, squishing out all the flesh with a spoon and scraping around until only the seeds are left. A lot of recipes skip this step and put the raspberries whole, but I think it's really worth going the extra mile, as the seedless sorbets are so much smoother and melt-in-the-mouth than the ones containing seeds.

Remove the lime peel from the sugar syrup and add the raspberry pulp and kirsch. Put in the freezer again until cool. Pour into your ice cream machine, or if you don't have one (and it's definitely worth the money if you like ice cream and sorbets, trust me!) put in a freezable container (preferably metal) and freeze for 1 hour, then take out, squash with a fork and refreeze, repeating the process every half an hour or so.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Limoncello soufflés

Successful soufflés are notoriously difficult to achieve, or at least that is the common consensus. Being a bit of a baking wimp, I had never attempted one before, as I thought they would take ages to make, require very precise timings and oven temperatures (and my oven is so temperamental that even "easy" things sometimes go all pear shaped, or watermelon-shaped, or pretty-much-anything-shaped!) and in general are too much hassle for the amount of enjoyment you get out of them. That was before I came across this recipe for an "easy" version of a classic lemon soufflé, with an added alcoholic twist.

Now Limoncello is one of those things that I really really love. I'm not a huge alcohol fan (at least not "in a drinking in a glass kinda way", we'll talk later about the "in a baking/cooking kinda way") but this is one of my all-time alcoholic favourites. It also somehow represents summer in my head, it's definitely not something I would have in the winter, it just says "sun, sun, sun, sitting on a patio, being on an island or lost in an alley somewhere in Italy". Having been confined to not-so-sunny London without a single day of holiday in the last 6 months, my withdrawal-symptom count is high, and as an islander I try to steal every bit of sunshine I can, even when it's in the form of a small, partially inflated Limoncello soufflé! True to its name, this is quick, easy, and works, although by the time I managed to take some good photos my little pots had deflated a little. Keep in the fridge until the time to serve, then pop in the oven and EAT IMMEDIATELY! They're extremely light and airy, and lovely for a warm summer evening...

Limoncello soufflé
Source: Sainsbury's magazine (December 2007)

Serves 8

  • A little butter, for greasing
  • 325g jar lemon curd (buy the best quality you can find)
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1 pinch cream of tartar
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp Limoncello liqueur
  • Some icing sugar, sifted, for dusting

Preheat oven to 200°C. Generously butter the ramekins or dishes and put them on a baking tray in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, warm the lemon curd with the lemon zest, then remove from the heat. In a large clean bowl whisk the egg whites with the cream of tartar until stiff, then whisk in the sugar, half at a time, until glossy. Mix the Limoncello into the lemon curd, then gradually fold it into the egg whites.

Spoon the mixture into the dishes and smooth off using a spatula. Run the end of a teaspoon around the inside rim of each dish − this helps the soufflés to rise evenly. Bake them for 12 minutes, dust them with icing sugar and serve immediately.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Chocolate sponge cake with almond crunch

There are some cakes that remind us of our childhood, cool spring evenings, the weeks leading to the summer school holidays, our birthday parties, visits to family, dipping fingers on chocolate glaze and being told off that the top of the cake will look ruined...

This is one of this kind of cakes. The recipe comes from my aunt, who always made amazing things for us ever since my childhood, and the times I visited her house we always gathered in the kitchen, playing on the kitchen table while something delicious was baking/cooking/being prepared. It's an extremely simple concept for a cake, but surprisingly delicious. We call this a "pot cake" in Greece, since you don't need a mixer or any big bowls to make it, pretty much everything is made in a big deep saucepan, the same one my aunt would use to boil her pasta.

When I moved to the UK in 2001 I came to do an MA, and in my University Accommodation kitchen I realised after a few months that I couldn't do without some sort of baking fix. Having discovered that the super-advanced microwave doubled up as a convection oven (4 months after moving to the place, thanks to some helpful past resident who conveniently had thrown the instructions behind a cupboard...) I started with pizza doughs, quiches, and other savoury concoctions, but I still couldn't do cakes without the much-required electric mixer that my student budget couldn't cover.

And then I remembered the "pot cake". Not surprisingly, my announcement raised a lot of excitement in the shared kitchen, as everyone took the "pot cake" to be some advanced version of hash brownies, getting initially disappointed at the lack of "extra oomph" they were expecting, but even so it was a huge success and I was asked to make it again and again to cover the needs of all my homemade-cake-starved fellow flat-sharers. This is still one of the cakes that I make frequently (9 years after having passed through at least 3 generations of mixers) and people always ask me for the recipe. It's simple, it's easy, it never fails, and its taste makes everyone think that it's far more complicated to make than it truly is. Try it and let me know what you think, it will make my aunt (now that she's in her 60s) happy to know that people she's never met are enjoying her recipe in foreign lands...

Chocolate sponge cake with almond crunch
Source: Passed down from my aunt

  • 1¼ glasses sugar
  • 6 tbsp water
  • 2½ tbsp cocoa powder
  • ¾ glass plain flour
  • 125gr butter
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup of blanched almonds

Preheat the oven to 200°C. In a deep saucepan mix the water with the sugar and cocoa powder and simmer gently, stirring constantly. As soon as the sugar has melted add the butter and mix until melted. Leave aside to cool slightly.

Separate the eggs, keeping the egg whites and yolks in separate bowls. In a small bowl beat the egg yolks and mix thoroughly into the slightly cooled chocolate mix. Keep one cup of the mix in the fridge.

In another bowl beat the egg whites into a meringue. Fold the egg whites softly but quickly into the chocolate mixture, gradually adding the flour, vanilla extract and baking powder. Pour into a round 20cm spring-form tin and bake for 30 minutes.

In the meantime chop the almonds in small pieces and fry in a pan over medium heat until browned. When the cake is ready and still warm take the cup of chocolate mixture out of the fridge and spoon it evenly over the top. You have to do this while the cake is still warm, so that the chocolate mixture will melt slightly but stick to the top. Finally sprinkle with the toasted almonds, lightly pressing them into the chocolate coating.

Almonds on Foodista

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Salmon with green pesto and parmesan crust

As a Greek, and especially a Greek who comes from an island (Milos for those who are curious) I learnt to swim (or at least float!) before I learnt how to walk and tried my first fish well before I first talked. While a great variety of fish can be found in the Greek islands, there are some that I would have never discovered if I hadn't left my country. One of them being my beloved salmon.

Although nowadays salmon is widely available, the Greeks' obsession with only cooking fish by grilling it (or baking it whole in the oven) with just olive oil and lemon, can sometimes prove disastrous. The only time I had tried it in Greece, it was (over)cooked plain as it was (with nada, maybe just a minuscule amount of salt) in the oven, which resulted in a total mess of a pinky-coloured shoe-sole. Hence my distrust of salmon and a resolution to never have it again in Greece. However, when I moved to the UK I discovered a whole new salmony world, waiting to be eaten in cuisines from Japanese to Indian, and have been a devoted fan ever since.

Along with teriyaki-style sauces, this is my other favourite way of having salmon. Simple sometimes is best, and although this implies the mixing of a few ingredients, it's a very quick dish that I love making after a long day at work, and the best thing is that it can cook while I'm taking a shower! I had found this recipe by Delia a long time ago, and have adapted it many times and in many different ways, finally finding the perfect version for me. I recommend it with some roast potatoes (see below for my quick and easy favourite!) but it works equally well with a rocket, parmesan and pine nut salad (drizzle with some olive oil and lemon and add some freshly ground black pepper on top).

Salmon with pesto and parmesan crust
Source: Adapted from Delia Smith

Serves 2

  • 2 salmon fillets, skinned
  • 2-3 tbsp grated Parmesan
  • 2 tbsp fresh green pesto
  • The juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs (I used dried Panko Japanese breadcrumbs, which I swear by)
  • Pinch of sea salt 
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

For the potatoes

  • 400-500gr baby new potatoes, peeled and cut in 1-3 chunks each
  • A few glugs of olive oil
  • Pinch of salt (Roast potatoes become amazing with black lava salt, which I get from Whole Foods)
  • Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp rosemary or other dried herbs (I love using ASDA's Tuscan style rub)

Preheat the oven to 230°C. Place the cut potatoes in a baking tray with a few good glugs of olive oil, and season with salt, pepper and the herbs. Cook for 35-40 min, stirring them around a few times. 

In the meantime, place the fillets on a lightly oiled baking tray and give each one a good squeeze of lemon juice and a seasoning of salt and pepper.

Next, give the pesto a good stir and measure 2 tablespoons into a small bowl, mix one-third of the breadcrumbs with it to form a paste and spread this over both fish fillets. Then, mix half the cheese with the remaining breadcrumbs and scatter this over the pesto, then finish off with the remaining cheese.

After the potatoes have been baking for 25-30 minutes, place the baking tray with the salmon on the middle or top shelf of the oven (move the potatoes to a lower shelf) and cook for 10 minutes, by which time the top should be golden brown and crispy and the salmon just cooked and moist and the potatoes ready.
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