Sunday, 1 July 2012

Making pizza

After weeks of digital silence on the cooking front, this metal object is really the best thing I have to re-enter the blogosphere with? Oh yes.

Having once enjoyed fresh, homemade pizza baked on a gorgeous jade green pizza stone, I vowed to own such a thing myself when I set up my own kitchen and various cooking gadgets. Well, it turns out they’re rather pricey, and more affordable ceramic stones tend to crack after a few uses. While I fully accept the advantage in taste and quality from baking pizza on a stone, I don’t want to have to live in fear of the thing splitting into pieces on my feet when I lift it out of the oven.

Enter: the pizza pan. This ingenious and very reasonably priced little creation has holes on the bottom so the dough cooks evenly, as it would on a stone, yet won’t unexpectedly break or require gym classes in order to lift. While certainly not a new idea, it’s meant that we can consistently make good pizza with a good crust when we feel like it. It may even be that pizza becomes something we’ll make for guests, adding to the range reliable casseroles, risottos and curries that are in rotation…

Top pizza-making tips: 

  1. If the dough isn’t stretching well and keeps tearing, knead in a bit more flour.
  2. If you’re making stuffed crust pizza, shape the dough so it hangs over the side of the pan, place the filling of cheese, pepperoni, etc. along the inside edge of the pan, then roll the extra dough around it.
  3. Let the dough rise for about 20 minutes in the pan before its first bake.
  4. You don’t have to put olive oil over the dough before its first bake – save a few calories and bake it plain.
  5. You can store pre-baked dough (without a stuffed crust) for a few days in a cool, dry place.
  6. A little pesto goes a long way – dot small spoonfuls around the top, or spread a very thin layer over the base before the tomato sauce. Too much pesto will make the pizza taste too salty.
  7. The thinner/smaller you can cut the toppings, the better.
  8. Pizza with all the toppings on should be fully cooked in 10-15 minutes at 200C/400F.
  9. Gently lift the finished pizza out of the pan using a spatula, and cut it on a large wooden chopping board before serving.

Monday, 7 May 2012

What I learned about making English muffins

I have a very extensive wish list of things I’d like to make one day. However, crossing those off is kind-of like visiting all the places that I hear about or see on tv and think “I’d like to go there some day”. But, when the time is right and the stars align….or, when you have a depressingly rainy bank holiday weekend….something on that wish list starts to look achievable. (This applies to both baking and travel – I know a few people who have managed to escape the cold sogginess that is Britain for warmer Mediterranean lands this weekend.)

English muffins were one of the things on the list. I tried a recipe from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible – she’s one of my baking heroines, and I trust her recipes completely. It looked amazingly simple – just flour, warm milk, yeast, sugar and salt – and the instructions were pretty basic: make dough, cut into shapes, let rise, fry lightly in oil on a griddle. Wait…what was that last one?

No, I didn’t realise that English muffins are cooked on the stovetop rather than in an oven. And yes, that means I never really thought about why the tops and bottoms are always 50 shades darker than the sides. Albeit a long process with cooking each side for seven minutes, the end result wasn’t bad, and here’s what I learned:

1) Temperature control is vital. This is something where the water test to check the initial temperature really helps (flick a few drops on the griddle to see if they sizzle). And, because you’re picking up the griddle in between batches to re-coat it with oil, it’s important to check how each batch is browning before the time is up.

Sprinkle the dough rounds with semolina before rising.
It gets everywhere, but bakes nicely into the top 

when you flip it over....
2) Re-oil the griddle before adding a new batch. You don’t need loads because the muffins will soak it up, but just a bit so they’re not just sitting on a hot surface and burning.

Downside of a gas hob – the heat is concentrated right
the middle. Checking periodically will avoid getting 
uneven colouring, as shown on the left one.
3) Make sure each side is dark brown. It may even get a little black, but that doesn’t mean it’s burned. The first batch I did was slightly undercooked as I thought they were getting too dark after six minutes, but when I allowed the subsequent muffins to brown up a bit bit more for the full seven minutes that I noticed as they cool down, they just looked like the kind you get in the store. English muffins need to stay on the griddle so long because they’re thick, and they rise as they cook.

4) The uncooked muffins are still rising. There’s not much to do about this, but it just means being strategic about which ones you choose to cook next. Don’t just work from one side of the tray to the other – try to choose muffins that are in between others so the ones left have space to rise, and don’t get stuck to their neighbours. This means they’ll pull a little as you separate them to put them on the griddle, causing them to sink again.

5) There’s no way to make these fresh for breakfast. Unless you really want to go the extra mile and wake up at 4am, you’ll be making these the day before. The cooking process along takes over an hour and a half so I’m not sure when I’ll be making these again, but the taste when they’ve just come off the griddle is definitley an incentive – well worth the wait.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Raspberry cinnamon rolls

Maybe I should have used another baking dish...
I have come to learn that the most unfortunate, yet very common mentality a cook can have is the ‘Oh, that’ll do’ complex. Pan ungreased but you’re ready to bake on it? ‘Oh, that’ll do’ means things stick to the bottom and clean-up is a nightmare. Can’t be bothered to drain meat after it’s been cooked? ‘Oh, that’ll do’ means extra fat in the dish plus perhaps even a sauce that’s not as thick as it’s supposed to be. Cookies not cool before stacking up? ‘Oh, that’ll do’ means they’re stuck in that stack. You get the idea.

Yesterday’s ‘Oh, that’ll do’ moment for me came when I made a batch of cinnamon rolls. I added raspberries in with the filling which made them roll up more loosely than usual, meaning there’s more room to expand during rising, yet I used one baking pan for them anyway. Bad idea. Sure, they taste good, but they’re not exactly photogenic. Instead of rows of neatly-formed swirls, I’ve got strange asymmetric blobs that can only be stored next to their oddly-shaped counterparts. I can see Martha Stewart’s disappointment now.

Anyway, I’d definitely do the filling again, though next time with a little more care to the roll itself.

Filling ingredients:
About ¾lb (350g) fresh rasberries (I bought a pack of frozen and defrosted them, draining any excess liquid)
cup (75g) butter, partly melted
¼ cup (55g) brown sugar
2-3 teaspoons cinnamon

1. Using a bread machine or by hand, make a basic sweet bread dough from your favourite recipe. Let it rise once until double.

2. Punch down the dough. On a floured surface, roll it into a rectangle. Spread the butter evenly, then sprinkle the brown sugar on top. Add more, if desired, to get an even layer. Then, sift the cinnamon on top of the brown sugar.

3. Neatly dot the raspberries around the dough, making sure to reach close to the edge so each cinnamon roll on the end has some raspberries in it.

4. Roll the dough starting from one of the shorter ends. Keep it loose enough that you don’t squeeze the raspberries out, and pinch the ends lightly to make sure nothing falls out.

5. Use a serrated knife to cut the roll of dough into ¼in (.5cm) circles. Place the circles into a greased baking dish so the ends of each do not touch each other. Use a second dish if necessary.

6. Let the dough rise again in a warm place until nearly double. Bake in a 350F (180C) oven for 30 minutes, or until the rolls are golden brown.

7. Let the rolls cool in the pan before removing. Serve warm, topped with a powdered sugar glaze if desired (powdered sugar, small amount of milk and a dash of vanilla extract).

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Orange curd

When I was planning Tim’s birthday cake and explaining to friends what I was going to do, they all gave me the same advice: “Buy the orange curd.” “But I thought I’d try making it.” “Way too much work.” “But…” “No, trust me.”

In the interest of expanding my cooking knowledge, I didn’t listen. Although, they were right about the work.

Curd is made by combining dairy with something acidic, which reacts to create a thicker substance. So, you’ll usually need some combination of butter, lemons/oranges and sugar. Some recipes I found called for egg yolks so I also put those in, but it seemed like the proportions of the former ingredients varied a lot. Most advice pointed to using Seville oranges as they tend to be more bitter, but I couldn’t find any so tried to use less sugar.

It’s probably a case of trying out different methods until you find your favourite. Here is what I did, which was moderately sharp, but worked well with the cake.

Juice of 4 oranges and 1 lemon
Zest from 2 oranges and 1 lemon, finely chopped
About 1 cup (200g) butter
½ cup (100g) sugar
3 egg yolks

1. In a medium-sized saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the sugar until dissolved, then add the orange/lemon juice and zest.

2. Stir the mixture frequently. When you notice that it starts to thicken (around 10 minutes), keep stirring until the curd coats the back of the spoon when you lift it out (this really won’t happen on anything other than a wooden spoon – I tried!)

3. Turn off the heat and leave the curd to cool down completely, during which time it will thicken nicely.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Chocolate orange cake

With the arrival of T’s birthday last week came a new cake request – this year, the boy wanted it to be all about chocolate and orange. However, it was a surprising struggle to think of what to do with that. Chocolate cake with orange flavouring, or orange cake with chocolate? Layered? Traybake? All of the above? Plonk a Terry's Chocolate Orange down in front of him?

My staple ‘need to bring a dessert that looks nice but won’t take long to make’ recipe is a chocolate cake with lemon curd in the middle, so I eventually decided to do a fancier take on that with orange curd and chocolate ganache. It tasted great, but took most of the day to do because I also got it into my head to make the orange curd. This is a whole other post’s worth of fun to share, however…

Chocolate cake ingredients:
¾ cup (170g) butter
1 cup (270g) sugar
3 eggs
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1¾ cups (325g) flour
1 cup (125g) baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 ½ cups (355ml) light (single) cream
½ cup (75g) dark chocolate chips (optional)

Chocolate ganache ingredients:
3.5oz (100g) dark chocolate
1 tbsp cocoa powder
cup (75ml) heavy (double) cream

Other ingredients:
Orange curd
Mandarin orange slices

1. Start by making the cake. Heat the oven to 350F (180C). Grease two 9in (23cm) round cake pans.

2. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla.

3. Mix the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl, and blend into the batter in portions along with the cream.

4.  When all ingredients have been mixed in and batter is smooth, pour into prepared cake pans and sprinkle chocolate chips evenly over the top of each.  Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

5. Let the cakes sit for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the pans and place them on wire racks to cool.

6. When completely cool, start to put the cake together. Spread orange curd on top of one cake layer, then carefully place the second layer on top. Fill in any ‘holes’ with remainig curd to get an even finish.

7. Next, make the ganache. Melt the chocolate over very low heat, mixing in the cocoa powder thoroughly when melted. Stir in the double cream.

8. Spread evenly on the cake immediately. If desired, add mandarin orange slices on top (from a can or similar, but patted dry to remove any excess juice). Let the ganache set.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Smoked fish lasagne

(About to follow is a paragraph of grammar/language commentary that you may want to skip)
Even if my day job did not require me to care about grammar and consistency in text, I’d have to anyway because of the really geek-like interest I have in languages. After starting this blog with a desire to keep it American – like the title says – and spell things sans u, I decided that because I’m in England I should spell as they do. Hence, the u returns, and z is largely banished.

All that to say, I’m keeping to the the ‘UK rules’ rule and spelling lasagne the British way because it has been made in the style that Brits tend to do. Oh yes, they do indeed have their own style. As lasagne is not a complicated concept, I’m sure there are parts of Italy that make it the same way, but I stick to my Italian grandmother’s lasagne recipe as my own authentic definition of southern European cuisine. If I ever make something based on that, it will be called lasagnA.

When T makes lasagne, he uses a white sauce rather than ricotta cheese. It makes for a much gooier, melt-in-your-mouth dish that’s perfect for coupling with garlic bread for a fondu-type approach. This lasagne holds together a little better on day two than it does fresh out of the oven, so be careful when serving the first couple of pieces that you don’t scoop out the filling from the middle in the process.

2 small filets of salmon
2 x 320g packs of smoked fish pie mix (from Sainsburys)
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
About 2 cups (175g) of baby corn, optional
Ground pepper, to taste
Uncooked lasagne noodles
About 2 cups (150-175g) of grated cheddar cheese

White sauce ingredients:
½ cup (113g) butter
½ cup (65g) of plain flour
¾ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon thyme
4 cups (945ml) milk

1. Make the white sauce first. Melt the butter over low heat, then add the flour, salt and thyme. Stir constantly until the flour is mixed in smoothly, and the sauce begins to bubble. Turn off the heat, and stir in the milk. Turn the heat back on low and keep stirring until the sauce comes back up to the boil. Let it boil for one minute, stirring to prevent it burning to the bottom of the pot.

2. Lightly saute the fish in butter and garlic, seasoning with pepper. Add the baby corn, if desired. The fish will crumble and flake together. Stir in three-quarters of the white sauce to the cooked fish.

3. To assemble, start with a layer of half of the fish mixture, and top with one-third of the grated cheese. Place a layer of uncooked lasange noodles on top of this, then add the rest of the fish. Top this with another portion of grated cheese, as before. Add a second layer of lasagne noodles, then spread these with a thin layer of the remaining white sauce. Top with the rest of the grated cheese.

4. Bake according to the instructions on your pack of lasagne noodles.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Sun-dried tomato and herb bread

While I don’t have a problem with the breadmaking process – long as it takes – what’s really hard to deal with is getting bread to rise when it’s cold. It’s a cruel truth that in the months when warm bread and carbs, carbs and more carbs are what your body craves as you wrap up warm with blankets and hot water bottles, it’s not always easy to find a warm spot to let bread dough rise.

The warm place I created and fenced off was unfortunately where my two cats like to sit (being a warm place and all…), so I made this bread into pan-shaped loaves rather than fancy rounds or baguettes to give them extra protection from curious paws (they once stepped in a rising foccacia loaf on a baking tray while en route to a windowsill – I blame myself for the lack of foresight, really).

(makes two loaves)

2 cups (500ml) very warm water
4 cups (545g) bread flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 package yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons Italian seasoning (mixed herbs)
½ cup finely-chopped sun-dried tomatoes (sorry, forgot to weigh this one - I used about 10 of varying sizes)

1. Put the yeast, sugar, 2 cups of the flour and water into a large bowl. Use an electric/handheld mixer to blend it together, scraping the sides to make sure it is mixed thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap (cling film) and leave for an hour, until mixture is bubbling and has expanded in size.

2. Pour the mixture into a mixing bowl. Using a dough hook if possible, mix in the oil, salt, tomatoes and Italian seasoing (mixed herbs). Add the flour a bit at a time, then turn the dough onto a board and knead for 5-8 minutes or until smooth and springy. Add flour as necessary while kneading.

3. Put the dough into a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

4. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a rectangle, then roll the rectangles tightly, tucking in the ends as you move along. Pinch the edge into the dough to create a smooth, neat seal. Put each dough roll into a loaf pan, cover and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.

5. Preheat the oven to 425F (220C). Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.