In fair Girona: travels in Spain

 

Churros

We live in an era where occasionally you can take off to Europe at a moment’s notice and spend a long weekend in another country and, recently (just before Easter), that’s just what I did. A friend was visiting from Australia and suggested a European adventure, and shortly after we had booked tickets to visit Girona. Spain is such a classic British holiday destination (and Belgian one, for that matter) that it was hard for some of my colleagues to understand that this was my very first visit, ever.

Hidden alley

Girona, which is close to Barcelona, is considered one of Catalonia’s major cities, but it’s population is – compared to London – tiny, with just under 100,000 people living there at last count. This accounts for the peacefulness and quiet of the town which I experienced; even at busy points it was pleasant and easy to walk around. Although the narrow alleyways and winding streets can make it confusing to navigate – all the stone walls merging into one – the size of the place makes it manageable (although I readily admit that I was entirely dependent on my friend, who had a homing pigeon’s instinct for finding our AirBnB).

Dali museum

It’s also easy to get to and from other areas – Barcelona is obviously close by, but we opted to take a day trip to Salvador Dali’s birthplace Figueres and visit the museum which he helped design (the entrance pictured just above). Dali is a somewhat controversial figure in the art world – the genius of his works is not doubted, but his changeable politics, which verged on outright support for Franco, can certainly be considered questionable – but the museum helped me to appreciate his body of work much more. His strange inventiveness, delicate skill and exquisite tenderness of his paintings was so much more than melting clocks.

Espresso Mafia

In terms of food, there were, predictably, a lot of tapas. On the first night we ate a restaurant at the steps of the San Felix church, which made for an atmospheric setting but markedly average food which in some cases seemed extremely Americanised – think stodgy cheese batter studded with mild chilliest, served with a barbecue-style sauce (we expected jalapeños stuffed with cheese from the description of it). We also ate at a branch of König, a mini-chain with branches around the city which we had actually avoided on the first night there on account of its Germanic name and long and mostly not very local menu. However, during a walking tour the next day, our guide mentioned it had won an award for the best patatas bravas in Catalonia. The tour ended just outside one of their branches, so the small group (four of us were on the tour) ate some decent bravas – chunky and without excess grease – and some average, but decent, seafood croquetas, and also slightly better ham croquetas. None of it was revelatory but it was satisfying. We cooled off with ice cream from Candela afterwards. They had some innovative (and not, to my palate, successful) flavours such as tomato ice cream, but also more delicious classics such as coffee, chocolate and pistachio. I had a lovely local walnut ice cream completely studded with chopped nuts – no mimsy sprinkle here. They were happy to provide samples before we bought our cones, too – always a bonus.

We also had some excellent coffee at Espresso Mafia, an elegantly minimalist cafe where they roast the coffee beans in-house. The friend I was with, who is Australian and therefore highly attuned to quality coffee, approved heartily. The flat whites were delicious; the chai latte was spicy and flavourful with a good gingery kick, but a little cold. They also serve a ‘dirty chai’, which is a chai latte with a shot of espresso; not my cup of tea but interesting enough. The baked goods were tasty standards – coconut, chocolate and Oreo cakes, banana breads and a range of oatmeal-based cookies, as well as a vegan option.

The second time we went to Espresso Mafia, coffees in hand, I purchased a handful of churros (picture at the top) from the Montse l’Artesana, a small churreria just opposite, to nibble on during our walk to the train station. The churros are sold by weight so I was able to request only three, which was sufficient for a (shared) mid-morning snackette. They were not freshly fried to order and served with thick chocolate, as you might expect, but were fried in advance, some plain, some covered in a chocolate glaze and some in a veil of white icing. I chose plain ones sprinkled with granulated sugar. They were more like a crunchy cookie than a tender, moist fritter with cakey insides, but this actually meant they went well with the coffee. I don’t think they were exceptional, probably, and yet I really enjoyed them, and eating the last of the sugar from the tip of the cone with a moistened finger.

Video: January-March 2017 Food and Cooking Favourites

It had been such a long time since I’d filmed something for the blog that I’d almost completely forgotten how. So please forgive the odd ramble as I take you through some of the food and food-related things I’ve loved in the first part of this year, from dazzling sweet-sour citrus to two very good books, afternoon snacks, and a new and slightly sticky obsession…

 

 

Baking challenge: a fine fettle of flatbreads

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week two (bread week) of series three: twelve flatbreads; six leavened and six unleavened)

Parathas and green flatbreads_sm

I have not written about my baking challenge in a while.

I have not really been doing much with it for a while. Mostly because baking resulted in a plethora of delicious but high-calorie food which I have been loathe to consume en masse (the exception was Christmas, but there’s so much going on then that there’s always someone to pass on baked goods to). My urges to create in the kitchen have been channelled through the medium of jams and marmalade, which have the virtue of not going stale.

My reluctance to make and then eat so much sugary food is why coming to the bread week challenges in the Bake-Off challenge is such a pleasure. For bread is often savoury, and even when sweetened, the sweetness is usually restrained enough for your loaf to be acceptable for breakfast. This particular signature challenge called for the making of two types of flatbreads, one leavened with yeast and one unleavened: six of each.

Making flatbreads - dividing and shaping
Top left: dividing the dough; top right: rolling each paratha; bottom left: dividing paratha into three joined strips; bottom left: buttering the dough before twisting and braiding

For the unleavened bread, I opted to make parathas, a buttery South Asian flatbread. I was guided, initially, by my friend Mehrunnisa’s guide and recipe on her blog. She uses wholewheat flour, which reflects the kind of parathas she grew up eating; interestingly, she mentions sweet applications, not something I have seen myself. However, I wanted to create the soft, butter-saturated, silky parathas of my childhood in Singapore. Curry and parathas with teh-oh (hot black tea without milk, but sweetened – and heavily at that – with sugar) was an infrequent ritual with my mother. There were numerous places we’d frequent; we actually liked the little hawker in the Botanical Gardens because we could then digest the rich, oily meal with a walk. For this reason I used white flour when making the parathas and used the proportions from Ruby Tandoh’s reliable baking book Crumb – although I used much more butter, more by accident than design at first. I served it with a fish curry, as I might have had in Singapore, although they were redder and richer in gravy, and more likely to be made with fish heads rather than fillets.

Making flatbreads - braiding, coiling, rolling and frying
1st row L-R: preparing to braid; twisting strips; braiding. 2nd row, L-R: coiling; finished coil; set of 6 completed coiled dough rounds. 3rd row, L-R: rolled out paratha; laminated layers; sizzling butter, for cooking

For the yeasted flatbreads, I adapted one of Nigella Lawson’s glorious bread recipes from How to be a Domestic Goddess. Often remembered for its cakes and biscuits, I think the savoury recipes in this book are all too easily overlooked, but they are wonderful. The original recipe is soft and pillowy as foccacia, baked with a warming, mellow topping of roast garlic and a paste of parsley. My version was altogether sprightlier, blending together parsley, coriander, raw garlic and a bit of lemon juice for a fresh, zingy paste. A dash of fresh chilli – green or red – would also not have gone amiss. They do tend to bake to a more muted green but the brightness of the flavour carried.

Unbaked green herb flatbreads
Unbaked flatbreads, daubed with bright green herb paste

Parathas
Recipe adapted from Crumb, by Ruby Tandoh

Note: almost every single step is illustrated in the collage images above.

Parathas and fish curry

  • 250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 135ml water
  1. Combine the salt and flour in a mixing bowl; add two TBS of melted butter and rub in to combine thoroughly. Add the water to the flour mixture and knead for a minute or so until well combined.
  2. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Divide the dough into six pieces. Roll each into a ball. Dust a work surface and rolling pin lightly with flour.
  4. One by one, roll each ball out into a disc of about 15-20cm. Using a knife or bench scraper, cut two long incisions into each disc, but do not cut through the top, to leave three strips of dough joined together (see collage image). Using a pastry brush, brush over the surface with melted butter, generously (you will however be using some of the butter to cook the paratha, so don’t worry about using all of it).
  5. Lightly twist each strand of the dough (see images above) and then roughly braid them together. Roll up the braids into a coil, like a snake, and tuck the ends under. Prepare all the parathas this way until ready to fry. You will probably need to lightly dust your work surface and folling pin between batches.
  6. Once ready to cook, take one coiled braid of dough and roll out to 15-20cm diameter circle. Heat up a frying pan over medium-low and coat the pan with a light surface of your remaining butter. Lightly butter one side of your rolled-out paratha then cook in the pan for two minutes, buttered side down; lightly brush the top with butter. Once cooked on one side, flip and cook for an additional two minutes, until lightly speckled with dark brown spots on both sides. If they are darkening too quickly or blackening in any way, turn down the heat; if they are blonde and pale still, turn it up a smidgen.
  7. While cooking the paratha, roll out the next circle. Repeat the cooking steps, adding more butter to the pan as required. Serve with curry; eat immediately

Green herb hearthbreads
Recipe adapted from How to Be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson

This makes six quite large flatbreads – big enough for sharing – rather than individually-sized ones, if I’m honest. You could easily halve them, but watch the baking time.

  • 500g strong white flour
  • 7g instant yeast
  • 1 TBS flaky salt
  • 300-400ml water
  • 5 TBS olive oil
  • 3-8 TBS extra-virgin olive oil (if you really don’t want to use extra-virgin, you don’t have to)
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • 10 cloves garlic, or even more if wished
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • seasoning for the herb paste
  1. Combine the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl; mix together the five TBS olive oil with 300ml water in a jug and add to the flour mixture to make a firm but not stiff, supple-soft dough. If it is dry at all or very hard and stiff, add a little more water a bit at a time.
  2. Turn out to a lightly oiled surface and knead for ten minutes until the dough is elastic and springy, very soft to the touch, and stretches out without breaking when you pull it. If you want, you can do the windowpane test.
  3. Pat the fully kneaded dough into a ball and clean out your bowl (yes), dry it and lightly oil it. Turn the dough in the bowl so that it’s oiled all over. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and let rise for an hour or a bit more until doubled in size.
  4. For the herb paste, combine the parsley, coriander and peeled garlic in a food processor and add three tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil; blitz until all is finely chopped. Add a little salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice, and then process with additional extra-virgin olive oil until it forms a runny paste. If you want chilli heat, add a chilli here too. I used about six tablespoons but you might need more or less depending on how big your bunches of herbs are. Taste the herb paste and if it’s lacking in anything – salt, garlic pungency, peppery heat, acidity – add salt, pepper, garlic or lemon juice to taste. This paste is the heart of the breads so it must taste delicious. Once you can’t stop tasting it, it’s ready to anoint your breads with.
  5. Once the dough has risen, punch it down gently and let rest for 10 minutes. Line two or three baking sheets with baking paper. Divide the rested dough into six equal portions. Roll each portion out into a rough oval or oblong shape. Press them out a little more using your fingers.
  6. Transfer the breads to the baking paper and cover with clingfilm; leave for 25 minutes for the second prove until they are puffy. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C.
  7. Remove the clingfilm from the proved breads and, using your fingers, dimple the surface of the breads. Stir your herb paste together briskly in case any of it has settled, then divide over the flatbreads, smoothing it out evenly over the surface of each using the back of a spoon.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the breads are cooked: the green paste will have dulled slightly in colour, and the dough will have deepened in colour and be golden and slightly bronzed in places. Remove from the oven, sprinkle over some good flaky salt, and eat, warm and comforting, as soon as cool enough to touch.

 

A coyly-clothed pistachio, candied quince and orange blossom cake

Orange flower water, honey, and quince pistachio cake

In December, I candied batch after batch of quince, those rock-hard, gleaming yellow knobbled fruit which are related to apples and may indeed be the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, not to mention the golden apples which sparked the Trojan war. Once cooked with sugar, the crunchy slabs of quince become tender and take on an ambrosial honeyed flavour which is mouth-fillingly fragrant. I wanted to use some of my quince pieces in a cake, especially the tender, pale yellow cubes made by parboiling the fruit in plain water before cooking in syrup; the glowing red wedges of quince in syrup were too beautiful not to decorate with.

Candied quince, three ways
Clockwise, from bottom left: red, firm-candied quince pieces; candied slices; amber-tinted candied quince cubes

The elegant, perfumed flavour of quince made me think of honey and orange flower water; I toyed, too, with the idea of using rose-water, which would bring out the quince’s romantic floral notes. I chose orange flower water in the end because I had a beautiful tapered-glass bottle of it sitting in the fridge. So far, so aromatically Middle Eastern; to complement the flavours, I decided to make a pistachio cake, for this gleaming verdant nut is native to Syria. In addition, its fat content means it produces a cake with a soft, tender crumb. The recipe I went with was actually Italian in style and includes a decidedly un-Middle eastern ingredient, sour cream, although of course Middle Eastern cuisines are no stranger to tangy dairy products.

Candied quince spiral

I wanted to frosting element of this cake to be luxurious, tempting, but at the same time didn’t want something cloying, like buttercream, or richly sharp like cream cheese icing, as I thought they would compete too much with the delicacy of the nut cake and subtle ambrosia of the quince. For this reason I went for double cream, mixed with honey and flower water and whipped up into soft, billowing clouds. Three hundred millilitres is just enough to fill the cake and decorate the sides and top in a lacy, coyly veiled ‘naked’ style – I’d been wanting to try one of these trendy peekaboo cakes for a while. I actually whipped the cream a little bit more than desirable: you really want very soft, blowsy cream, beaten juuuuust to the point of holding its shape, but I was packing the cake up and taking it to my book club meeting. I was terribly anxious about it surviving the Tube, which can be hot even in winter, so whipped the cream quite stiff to give it a bit more stability. The result is that it looks a little grainy once iced, but it wasn’t overwhipped at all (no butterfat had solidified in the cream).

I was extremely gratified – since this was a very experimental cake – that everyone at my book club said they thought it delicious. However, don’t feel that it is out of your grasp because you don’t have a stash of syrupy quince in your fridge; I’ve given suggestions below for alternative fruits you could use for the filling and topping. Although they’d be different, they’d be none the less delicious, bringing the required sweet juiciness. I love cooking from recipes and following steps precisely: after a long and freeform day at work, surrendering myself to the instructions of a recipe is strangely relaxing. Yet cooking and even baking are also about freedom, exploration and substitution. This recipe came about by happy and delicious happenstance; there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for you.

Sliced pistachio cake
Hasty, not very well-lit action shot of the sliced cake

Pistachio cake
Adapted from this recipe by Rose Levy Berenbaum

  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 160ml sour cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 85g peeled and blanched pistachios (i.e. with shells and papery outer skins removed before weighing)
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 265g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Orange blossom cream

  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 TBS clear, runny honey – an orange blossom honey would be wonderful here
  • 1/2 TBS – 1 TBS orange blossom water (use more or less depending on the strength of your flower water)

To assemble

  • One batch of candied quince cubes, from one quince, candied by parboiling and then cooking in syrup (instructions in this post)
  • One batch of candied quince slices in syrup, from one quince (instructions in this post)

or

  • Two peaches or nectarines, peeled, one chopped, one sliced into wedges
  • A handful of fresh, intensely ripe and fragrant apricots, half chopped, half sliced, halved or quartered
  • A bagful of sweet red cherries, stoned, half chopped and the rest halved
  • A drained tin of lychees, half chopped, half quartered (if using lychees, replace the orange blossom water with rose water, and throw in a box of raspberries in the filling and to decorate the top to capture an Ispahan-like flavour)

Equipment

You will need three 20cm cake tins, ideally shallow (I used three of the 20cm Wilton layer cake tins), to make the recipe as written. However, you could cake up the mixture in standard 18cm sandwich tins or 23cm springform tins – you just might end up with fewer layers and you will need to adjust the baking time.

  1. Grease the cake tins and line the base with baking paper
  2. Preheat the oven to 180C
  3. Whisk the eggs, 3 tablespoons of sour cream and vanilla extract until just combined (set aside the remaining sour cream).
  4. In a food processor, mini chopper or jug blender, grind the pistachions together with the caster sugar until finely ground but not a powder – the texture should be nubbly and grainy with a few larger chunks throughout.
  5. Using an electric beater, mix the flour, pistachio-sugar mixture, baking powder, baking soda and salt together on low for about 30 seconds, until throughly combined (you could always do this by hand using a balloon whisk, but the elctric beaters will come in handy for the next steps)
  6. Add the butter and set aside sour cream to the flour mixture and mix on low speed together until the dry ingredients have been thoroughly moistened by the dairy products. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and beat for about a minute and a half. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  7. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg-sour cream mixture to the mixture in your bowl in two batches, beating the egg mixture in for 30 seconds on medium speed between additions so that it is thoroughly combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Scrape the batter equally into the prepared tins (if you are keen and determined to have them be absolutely equal, you can weigh the batter). Smooth the top of the batter with a small offset spatula.
  9. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or a little longer depending on the number of tins you have divided the batter into and the dimensions of the tins. Test by inserting a skewer or cake tester into the centre of each cake; it should come out clean, and the centre of the cake should spring back when pressed gently. The edges will be slightly darker and will be pulling away from the sides of the cake tins ever so slightly.
  10. Let the cakes cool in their tins for ten minutes on a wire rack, then gently unmould and let cool completely.

For the orange flower and honey cream

Note: make this only when the cakes are completely cool and you are ready to fill and decorate

  1. Stir together the cream, honey and orange flower water until combined. Taste a little and adjust as needed by adding a little more honey or orange flower if you think it’s required.
  2. Using an electric whisk or handheld balloon whisk, gently beat the cream mixture on low speed until it just holds firm peaks

To assemble

Note: the assembly instructions are for three layers; if you have cooked fewer layers, just adjust them as required.

  1. Place one of your cake layers in the middle of a cake board or your serving plate, upside down (i.e. so that the flat side is up). If your cake layer was very domed, you can level off the top with a sharp serrated knife, though proceed carefully.
  2. Dollop a scant quarter of the cream mixture onto the centre of the cake layer and spread it to the edges using an offset spatula. Sprinkle over half of your candied quince cubes or your chopped prepared fruit evenly over the cream.
  3. Top with the second cake slice (again, upside down so the flat side is up) and repeat with the cream and remaining half of the chopped quince cubes or prepared fruit.
  4. Top the cake with the final cake layer, again upside down so the flat side is up.
  5. Smooth over a quarter of the whipped cream over the top of the cake using your offset spatula. Smooth the final quarter of whipped cream over the sides of the cake using your spatula, spreading it as evenly as possible. I used my metal bench scraper to smoothen the cream evenly over the sides as a final step by running it over the edges to wipe off the excess.
  6. Decorate the top of the cake by placing your candied quince slices or your sliced or quartered fresh fruit in a pattern over the top

 

Resolution Roundup: March 2017

Golden-leaved bush

I have been loving the tilts towards light and warmth – I love the changeable seasons – but in some respects March has been a hard month. Not for any particular reason I can point to, but my sleep pattern went haywire. I’ve rarely fallen asleep before 1am and have woken up on the dot at 4am to thrash around for an hour or so. This is not brilliant fun when you have to go to work and has resulted in me feeling like March has absolutely spiralled out of control. I’ve had some moments of feeling utterly defeated by ‘stuff’, such as washing up. But I’ve also cleared away some clutter – got rid of stacks of books and general household and kitchen detritus, and hope this will help me feel calmer soon.

salmon patties
Salmon patties and the technicolour red cabbage salad

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

The fish eating continues to go well. I made this Tom Kerridge recipe with salted pollack – although I actually used cod. It’s so much easier to buy sustainable, line-caught, MSC-certified cod than it does finding the cod ‘alternatives’ we’re always encouraged to try instead, which is a shame. Although the fish-chorizo combination is successful, I think the whole thing is too salty. I made these crab cakes and am not entirely convinced that it’s the best way to showcase this expensive shellfish. I preferred these salmon patties – easy and cheap and, if made with red salmon, absolutely packed with omega-3 fatty acids. This miso-glazed salmon is what I think of as a classic way to prepare salmon and was easy and quick – and didn’t require any extra shopping, for me at least.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

I managed this for all but one week of March, mostly by packing up leftovers made the night before. David and I both had the remains of this beef stir-fry with some rice and found it delicious. I would never have thought of using preserved stem ginger to add hot, sticky sweetness to a beef dish, but it really works. I also used up a packet of dried red kidney beans languishing in the cupboard to make this lobio, a Georgian bean salad. I think it’s an acquired taste thanks to the aniseed taste of tarragon and bitter-earthy sweetness of fenugreek with the sharp intensity of a shedload of vinegar. It tasted strangely digestible, if that’s something you can ever say of bean salad.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

Yes – maybe I set the bar too low but I’m finding it relatively easy to achieve. Among some of the recipes I tried, I made these sweet potato fries on a working from home day – I’ve never managed to get crisp oven-baked sweet potatoes and these were as soggy as any other recipe I’ve tried. I hope to persevere and finally achieve crisp-crunchy sweet potato perfection. Maybe when I get a better oven.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

This chilli con carne is delicious – the dark chocolate and tomato ketchup seem to give it a really velvety depth. I also made this one which is a bit more of a standard chilli, although I’m not used to seeing celery and carrot in such recipes – it was fine but not as good as the other one.

I thought these chicken burgers would be better than they were (more punchy), but I did enjoy them. I thought the recipe would come together more quickly than it did, but then I did have to MINCE MY OWN CHICKEN because the butcher, yes, actual butcher at the fancy organic family butcher I went to said “we don’t sell chicken mince, go to Sainsbury’s”.

I made this very nice honey nut granola – it was very crisp and deliciously buttery with the variety of nuts used. However, I found the nutmeg (mentioned in the ingredients but not the method) a little overpowering. This banana-walnut granola relied more on the sweetness of bananas ripened to darkness than of added sugar and made a huge, not-too-sugary jar of granola. I gilded the banana lily by eating it with sliced bananas over a bowl of skyr.

On the sweet side, another bowlful of vegan, banana-based, chocolate-flecked cookies – different but acutely similar to the ones I made at Christmas. They improve upon keeping. But also your traditional soft, large chocolate chip cookies made with multiple sugars. This recipe was all right but I prefer Nigella Lawson’s, from her soothing book Kitchen.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

I have shouted a great deal about Guy Verhofstadt.

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

See the opening paragraph. I wish I could say it’s the lateness of Easter – and therefore the Easter break – which resulted in my March meltdown, but I think it’s more likely to be down to letting my exercise routine lapse. I have started going to the gym again – yes, I am proud for picking up that thread – and hope that my sleep patterns will…normalise.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

I haven’t done this but am planning a trip to Bath with some of my friends after Easter, and David and I might go to Scotland at some point (yay!). The weather has turned and we’re heading in to the right time of year to explore, I think. It’s almost pointless to go when it’s cold.

8) Read at least one book a month

As I mentioned in the February round-up, I read ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ for my book group. It’s an extraordinary book in some ways – it plays with the form and structure of what we call ‘the novel’ in genre-breaking ways that recall Joyce and Woolf. There were some very profound moments and we had a lot to talk about. But some members of the group felt the book was pretentious and a lot of us felt simply confused. On balance I liked it and was impressed by it, but despite a personal experience of bereavement, it didn’t speak to me as deeply as I thought it would.

I also read Laurie Colwin’s ‘More Home Cooking’ which is, appropriately, the follow-up to her book ‘Home Cooking’. I have no ambiguous feeling about Colwin’s writing: it is warm, soothing and homely in the best way.

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Not Tom Hiddleston’s bolognese

Six-hour bolognese

A few weeks ago, the internet presented me with an interview Tom Hiddleston gave for GQ. For a few hours, I could not avoid it, so I read it. I read it even though I have seen exactly one film in which Tom Hiddleston has acted (Midnight in Paris, a tiny part) (why no, I have not seen The Night Manager); even though I thought ‘Hiddleston’ had a second ‘e’ (at the end); even though according to me the whole ‘I heart TS’ thing will probably never not be funny (I get that he did the interview to move on from this but COME ON). I read it because I kept seeing people mention that the beating heart of the interview was…bolognese.

Bolognese? BOLOGNESE. There was a moment, a moment where every food media outlet was suddenly tumbling over itself to talk about Tom Hiddleston’s Bolognese, which he served to his interviewer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, apparently with a huge helpful of evangelical enthusiasm (“Tom! Hiddleston! Loves! This! Bolognese!”) but not, as it turns out, pasta. To be honest, I find this a little antisocial. Possibly a carb-avoiding thing?

I came away from the interview feeling somewhat bemused. Like…was it a parody? Apparently it was not…but it read like one? Or am I doing that British thing (I am not British, but have adopted many of their ways to blend in to their society better) of misreading American sincerity? But I also came away thinking the following:

The thing that distinguished the Tom Hiddleston Bolognese was the Three Bs: the inclusion of butter and bacon, and the baking as the application of heat. Because I live in the UK, I did not face the confusion US magazine Bon Appetit faced when considering what the “tin of tomatoes” from Brodesser-Akner’s notes could mean. BA writer Alyse Whitney speculated: whole? crushed? diced? sauce? To which I can clarify: in the UK there are literally two tomato products that come in tins: chopped tomatoes, or whole peeled plum tomatoes. Passata and tomato sauce comes in glass jars or occasionally in tetra-packs. Tomato paste comes in metal tubes or very occasionally in small cans and no one would refer to paste as ‘a tin of tomatoes’.

For all that my interpretation of this bolognese is inspired by the world of celebrity, this recipe is in fact a celebration of slowness, of patient application, and of time. It has depth and provenance.

Bolognese

I started it almost as soon as I rolled out of bed in the morning, mincing onions and carrots and celery while sipping a cup of tea; as the milk and then the wine bubbled into the mixture of meat, I washed up the dishes and watched the late February snowfall; tiny white flecks that moved dizzily. Then I kneaded pasta dough and covered it, and then I put the big, heavy pot of sauce in the oven on a low, low heat, and put on my gym gear and went, for the first time in a while, to the gym.

Pasta being rolled
I picked up this baby many years ago in a charity shop – the box says it was £3.97

And then I went for a walk around the neighbourhood and the snow started coming down in thick heavy flakes which landed on my nose and didn’t melt for a disconcertingly long time. And then I went home and showered and took down the pasta machine I bought years ago in a charity shop and started rolling the pasta dough and kneading it and rolling, thinner and thinner, and cutting it into fat wide ribbons. And then it was finally time to eat, and we sat down and the meat was silkily tender from the milk proteins and time – even the bacon lardons were soft all the way through. The fresh, just made, just cut, just cooked pappardelle noodles were soft and delicate as voile and yet somehow had that springy, toothy resilience which makes eating them such a pleasure and so worth the work, which is not inconsiderable. And the house was warm from the oven and it was all snowy and blustery outside and my nose which had been so very cold had warmed up and regained its feeling, and yes, eating delicious food that has involved time and care, sharing this food that you have made and nourished, on a cold day when fat icy flakes are coming down, is apt to make one feel grateful, and I felt enormously grateful and happy.

This recipe owes, so very much, and so obviously,  to Marcella Hazan’s classic bolognese sauce, to her method, down to the addition of milk, the scrape of nutmeg. Yet for all that it’s not her recipe, but mine: the addition of bacon, the veal mince, the measurements and proportions, the longer, slower cooking in an oven, where the dry even heat means the meat cooks until exquisitely tender and moist without sticking.

You may wonder if there is enough tomato in the recipe below, even considering that traditionally bolognese sauce does not use a lot of tomatoes; and yes, it is. The flavour really does concentrate over the six-plus hours of cooking.

Wide pappardelle strips
Cutting up ribbons of pasta for pappardelle

I served this with homemade egg papardelle but if you cannot be bothered with this, just use a good quality dried papardelle. I must say, the bolognese sauce, while time-consuming, is very simple to make; the pasta is much harder work.

Not Tom Hiddleston’s Bolognese, or, Slow-Cooked Six-Hour Bolognese
Would serve 4-6. The leftovers are delightful

NOTE: I cooked this for about six hours: three at 100C (covered), two and a half (uncovered) at 120C and about half an hour (uncovered) at 180C, and it hung around in the oven while I was rolling and cutting the pasta.

  • 25g butter
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 200g smoked lardons or pancetta cubes
  • 1 small onion, about 100-150g, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots or 3 small carrots – between 150-180g, finely chopped
  • 2-3 celery sticks – between 120-150g, finely chopped
  • 800g beef mince (mine was 10% fat)
  • 800g veal mince
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • 500ml whole milk
  • Nutmeg
  • 500ml white wine (NOTE: TH apparently used red wine)
  • 1 tin of plum tomatoes
  1. Melt together the butter and olive oil on a medium-low heat. Add the lardons or pancetta and cook for around 5 minutes, until they have cooked through and slightly browned at the edges and the fat has rendered.
  2. Increase heat to medium. Add the onion and stir around in the fat; cook for a few minutes until translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook together for two minutes.
  3. Add the beef and veal mince and add a large pinch of salt and grind in black pepper to taste. Crumble the meat about the pan with a wooden spoon and let colour, stirring occasionally, until it has browned a little (actually it goes a slightly greyish-beige colour beofre browning properly, which is what you should aim for, but this sounds horrible) and no longer looks red and raw. Return pan to medium-low or low heat.
  4. Add the milk to the pan, stir together with the meat and let it simmer gently until the majority of the liquid has bubbled away. This will take 25-30 minutes. If it’s bubbling fiercely, turn down the heat.
  5. Grate in a tiny smidgen – a grating or three, no more than an eighth of a teaspoon – of nutmeg
  6. Add the wine and let it simmer gently until most of it has evaporated away – this will take 25-30 minutes. If it’s bubbling fiercely, turn the heat down
  7. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to a low setting. If you want to eat within 3-4 hours you could preheat to 120C, but if you want to leave it for a good long while, around 100C is good.
  8. Once the wine has bubbled away, for the most part, add the tinned tomatoes, crushing them in your fists as you add them. Right now you probably have a pale and unappetising mess, milky and insipid-looking and studded with red chunks of tomato. Take a deep breath, cover the pot, and put in the oven.
  9. Now leave it. You want to cook it covered at this low heat for at least two hours, and three is better. Longer won’t hurt, either, as long as your temperature is around 100C. If you are hanging around at home and can give it the occasional stir, do so.
  10. After several hours have passed, remove the lid from the pot. You will see a somewhat reduced, darker and more delicious looking sauce that has not yet achieved the heights of flavour, depth and concentration it has the potential to reach. Quite possibly the sauce has started to separate slightly, with the meat at the bottom and a red layer of fat at the top. Stir it all together. If your temperature is very low, increase to 120C and put the uncovered pan back in the oven. Leave for at least two hours.
  11. Around an hour before, or at least halfan hour before, you want to eat, increase the heat to 180C. The purpose of this final blast of heat is to concentrate all the juices of the meat and tomatoes together and to ensure that it arrives at the table completely hot and delicious and bubbling. The fat will once again have separated from the meat in an oily layer on top. Personally, for serving, I don’t pour this off the pan, but I do pick up the meat with a slotted spoon so the fat returns to baste the remaining sauce rather than ending up as a greasy layer on the plate. If you prefer a thicker, more mouth-coating texture, pick up some of the fat with your serving spoon.

Pasta dough for pappardelle
Serves two
This is a very standard recipe and template. I followed Jamie Oliver’s recipe as a guide.

While the bolognese is cooking, you have time to make your own pasta dough. You don’t have to, but you can. I think homemade pasta is for special occasions but a six-hour sauce definitely deserves it, or at least the very best pasta you can get your hands on.

  • 2 large eggs
  • 200g Italian ’00’ flour (which is very fine) or plain flour
  1. Place the flour in a bowl (or directly onto your kitchen surface if you want to look like an Italian grandmother in a travel programme!) and make a well in the centre. Pour the eggs into this well and beat them until smooth.
  2. Combine the eggs and flour, mixing with the tips of your fingers, until everything comes together in a big, shaggy mess that doesn’t in any way resemble pasta.
  3. Knead the dough onto your work surface until it has become a smooth, shiny ball that holds together and has a bit of stretch and give to it – this is a sign you have developed the gluten and will ensure you have pliable pasta with a little bit of bite rather than someything crumbly. Incidentally, this is very tough work.
  4. Once kneaded, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.
  5. When you are ready to start rolling the pasta, clamp your pasta machine to a clean work surface (I often find the clamping to be the biggest challenge!) and divide the dough into halves or thirds, keeping the pieces you are not rolling well wrapped.
  6. Dust the lump of dough you are using with a little flour, then set the pasta machine to its widest setting. Roll the dough through this setting, then fold it in half and roll again, doing this five or six times to work the dough and make it silky.
  7. Dust the dough with a little more flour and roll it through the pasta machine at the widest setting, then fold it in half and set the machine to the next lowest setting. Run it through the machine again and repeat the process until you have run the pasta through to the narrowest setting. This can get quite difficult to juggle so do cut the pasta in half if you need to. (Note: if your dough is cracking and breaking horribly it’s probably become too dry over the course of rolling. Just roll it as thinly as you can).
  8. Once the pasta has been rolled out to the thinnest setting, dust the sheet thoroughly with flour on both sides and roll it up like a Swiss roll or roulade on the short end. Take a knife and cut across the length of the pasta roll in 2-2.5cm intervals (depending on how wide you want the pappardelle). When you unravel the pasta to dry it out, you will have long strips of pappardelle. Hang them over a clean chair or similar to dry out while rolling the next batch of dough.
  9. When ready to cook, bring an enormous pan of water to the boil and salt it generously. Add the pappardelle in batches and cook for 1-3 minutes, tops. Fish it out with a pasta/spaghetti spoon and mix it in to the sauce (or at least, the portion of sauce you will serve). Some of my pappardelle noodles stuck together a bit but they still tasted wonderful.

 

Resolution roundup: February 2017

cheese-and-black-bean-quesadilla

It’s the end of the second month of the year – the shortest month and traditionally the grimmest and dreariest, although to be honest I’ve found February this year to be surprisingly warm and bright and hopeful. I’ve been trying to maintain my commitment to the resolutions, though I think I understand why momentum traditionally drops. I already feel defeated and exhausted…though I am writing this while nursing a two-day hangover for which I can only blame myself, but for which I would like to blame all of my friends.

1) Eat fish at least once a week, preferably twice a week

Yes, done, though sometimes I’ve supplemented fish cooking with a bit of bought-in sushi. I do love it. I have also noticed that this resolution is making me more likely to order a fish dish over a meat dish when eating out.

Anyway, in terms of dishes that I cooked, some highlights include this Martha Stewart recipe for herb-crusted salmon –  simple but very good; we had it with rosemary roast potatoes. Equally, this recipe for foil-baked fish with ginger, garlic and chilli, by Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall, was child’s play but utterly delicious served with steamed rice and broccoli. My platonic fish meal, and I always adore HFW’s recipes.

2) Bring a packed lunch to work at least three times a week

Done! Sometimes a bit exhausting and occasionally wearying if I’m eating the same thing over and over again (see below), but not a bad effort.

3) Eat at least three vegetarian meals a week

Yes, mostly achieved thorough work lunches – for some reason this month a lot of dishes seem to have been served with a flourish of diced chorizo. After eating this sweet potato and chickpea curry every day for lunch plus for dinner I never want to eat it again. It was the never-ending curry; if I had a freezer I would have tucked away half of it. These black bean quesadillas from Allegra McEvedy (pictured above) were glorious, incidentally. I usually grate cheese over my main quesadilla mixture, but somehow mixing it in with the vegetable filling made a real difference. I also made a really luscious macaroni and cheese with leeks: just cooked pasta, leeks sauteed in butter, a standard bechamel enchanced with mustard powder, nutmeg and lots of Cheddar, and a crunchy topping of parmesan cheese with breadcrumbs. No bacon necessary, and I don’t say that lightly.

4) Clear my archive of bookmarked recipes

I have been successfully ploughing through but the recipes were, broadly, not such hits this time. This mac and cheese recipe was an out-and-out mess – like all such recipes it used up every vessel in the kitchen and curdled, to boot – I thought it was my error but a few commenters have mentioned curdling as a problem. It tasted okay but was texturally a fail. However, of a mediocre (though generally not bad/horrible) bunch, there were a few standouts, including this comforting sausage and kidney bean stew from Angela Hartnett. I enjoyed these sweet potato latkes, but my boyfriend adored them and absolutely wolfed them down. I served them with chorizo.

5) Celebrate my heritage more

I read a news story about K.A.A. Gent beating Tottenham in the Europa League and that’s good enough for me. Since my interest in football is such that I glaze over at even a mention of it, this is extreme patriotism indeed. (In other words, no).

6) Develop a good bedtime/sleeping routine

I’m waking up regularly at 6am naturally, which is not entirely welcome. I don’t think this can be considered ‘good’.

7) Visit at least two (new) places in the UK outside of London

No.

8) Read at least one book a month

…I think I have. But I can’t remember what I read in January and what in February…? Anyway I’m currently re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s marvellous and inspiring ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ and will then read ‘Grief is the thing with feathers’ for my book club – slightly apprehensive about this one…