Itsu-inspired salmon and edamame rice bowl and matcha choux puffs

About once a month, a select (ha) group of culinarily adventurous friends and I meet up to cook and eat together. We rotate between each other’s homes and each evening has a theme. It is, in short, a supper club, or dinner party club, except that not every gathering is actually in the evening.

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Sun-dappled, a Middle Eastern feast

Our very first themed dinner was ‘Harvest Festival’ and, as you might expect, it was held in early autumn. Themes which have been particular favourites of mine have included ‘Middle Eastern Afternoon Tea’, particularly memorable because I served up muhammara according to Diana Henry‘s addictively good recipe from Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, and I read up a lot about Anglo-Indian food and heritage for our ‘Indian Summer’ themed lunch – anything which combines food and history is going to be all right by me. (In case the name seems odd, it was an homage to the Channel Four show ‘Indian Summers’, which dramatised the final years of British colonial rule in India.) In January this year I hosted a Burns Night themed evening in which anti-haggis prejudices were overcome by suspicious southerners, and even the vegetarian haggis was well-received. (I love haggis – if you love a big, spicy, crumbly meatball I urge you to try it when the weather cools down). A friend’s boyfriend gamely read Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis’ in a broad Scots dialect, a feat which was all the more impressive considering a) a Scottish amount of alcohol had been consumed and b) it was the first time he’d met us, and standing up in a room full of strangers to read a poem in Scots dialect sounds like the worst kind of trial. (Indeed, as a little girl I ran sobbing out of a room full of people at the Belgian and Luxembourg Association of Singapore‘s annual St Nicholas’ Day party when asked to read a poem in Dutch – i.e. my first language).

More recently we had a Japanese-themed lunch, although it was called ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’, and was a celebration of both the warmer weather as well as the elegant, simple yet satisfying flavours of Japanese cooking. My friend Tina served us miso soup and stickily sweet chicken yakitori in her tiny Covent Garden flat; the windows were thrown open wide to embrace the sun and warmth coming in. I brought a salmon and edamame rice salad which was inspired by one of my absolute favourite bought lunches from Itsu, a chain which specialises in light, healthy Asian takeaway meals: teriyaki salmon on a bed. In addition to salmon (obviously) and rice, this dish includes edamame beans, which you can buy in the frozen section of most supermarkets, usually labelled ‘soya beans’. I much prefer them to the more British broad bean because they do not require a second podding after cooking. The components of fish, rice and bright green beans are easy to bring together. Such is the popularity of Japanese food that the ingredients can be bought at any standard supermarket.

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Salmon rice bowl – we had already tucked in!

It’s 047my friend Juliet, however, who shines in preparing food which is delicate (never quite as twee as ‘dainty’) and beautifully presented. She loves Asian food and predictably stole the show with some beautiful matcha cream puffs. The matcha creme diplomat used to fill them was rich, but the addition of whipped cream made it one of those dangerous foodstuffs whose saturated fat content is belied by the absolute lightness on the tongue. The floral taste of the creme diplomat was a perfect match(a) for the delicate texture of the puffs. Juliet also had some extra matcha creme diplomat with her and I can attest that, in addition to cream puffs, it is utterly divine piped or spooned into raspberries cavities or squiggled onto frozen yoghurt.

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In addition to the crisp little choux buns, there’s extra textural interest provided by a layer of craquelin, which gives the tops of the buns a pleasing giraffe-like pattern. Craquelin is effectively a pressed Francophone crumble topping – a disc of flour, butter, and brown sugar – which somehow makes the whole thing sound a lot less like you need a Cordon Bleu qualification and more like something that can be achieved at home.

 

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Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille

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 eight (the final) of series two: layered millefeuille.

Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline
Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline

Sometimes, if you want to impress your friends and sicken your enemies (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from Marian Keyes, FYI), you need to put the time and effort in. Making millefeuille is one of those things: it will delight the eye, bring joy to the palate, and inspire awe in your guests. But, because millefeuille is not a single recipe but a set of deliciously-assembled components, it does take work. Fortunately for you, and your dinner party guests, pretty much every component can be made in advance and put together before serving. This is why plated desserts are such a staple of restaurant kitchens: it’s no more effort, after all the baking, than putting together a few Lego blocks. But in the home, all the baking is done by one person, and that person is you.

Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing
Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing

Component number one is the rough puff or full puff pastry. How time-consuming and difficult you will find this process depends entirely on how often you make regular pastry. Although I had some mishaps (detailed in the head notes to the recipe), on the whole this was straightforward.

Component number two is the creme patissiere. I decided I definitely wanted my creme patissiere filling to be coffee, because I love coffee in dessert and it is just not featured enough, in my view. The feedback from my friends was that the liked that the coffee flavour was quite gentle and not too strong – so if you want it stronger you should increase the coffee extract to taste or perhaps infuse the cream with coffee grounds (straining before use) or add dissolved instant coffee.

Component three was the caramel, for drizzling, and number four was some

Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert
Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert

hazelnut praline, crushed into powder, for textural contrast and smokey, nutty depth. Someone brought some raspberries to my party (where I served this dessert) so later that evening I dotted each millefeuille with them in the spirit of pure opportunism. And actually I think it really lifted everything, introducing a slightly sharp note and a splodge of colour that lifted the beige, brown and buff elements of cooked pastry, drizzled caramel and mocha creme patissiere.

When it comes to making caramel, I have a secret: I very rarely use recipes or even measurements anymore. Usually I throw a fistful of sugar into a pan, cook it until amber, and then pour in glugs of cream until it’s the consistency I want. I finish it off with salt and butter to taste. This happy state of throwing caution to the wind comes after many years of carefully following recipes, swirling my pan of measured-out ingredients and reading the instructions as I went. I mention this simply because I think making caramel is a bit of a stressful endeavour for a lot of people, but do it enough and it can really come to feel quite natural. As with anything, the impression of ease, fluidity and instinct is simply the result of many years of practice. I decanted it into a plastic squeezy bottle but you can drizzle (or splatter) the caramel over using a spoon or piping bag as you prefer.

Overhead shot
Overhead shot

I hasten to add that sometimes my sugar does burn and occasionally the whole thing seizes up to a grainy paste – but this is usually when I have decided to leave the kitchen to watch TV or something. Don’t abandon your caramel!

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Baking challenge: the one with the maple pecan bacon pastry plait

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 showstopper challnge for week seven (patisserie week) of series two: a selection of three different types of Danish pastry, all made out of the same dough.

I didn’t think I was the kind of person who made croissants – but I made them! And apple turnovers, and maple-pecan-bacon plaits. All out of a single batch of yeasted, laminated dough.

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It turns out that the process of making laminated pastry is time-consuming but not hugely difficult or technical. You spend a lot of time waiting for dough to rise, so it’s definitely a weekend project, but actually the dough is extremely forgiving; in the recipe I used, you can leave the dough to rest periodically anywhere between one and eight hours. This is actually extremely flexible and you could fit making the dough around most activities. I used Anna Olson’s recipe for laminated dough, inspired by her show Bake with Anna Olson and the episode on croissants. I mentioned on Twitter that I was making the recipe and Anna actually responded, which sent my heart a-flutter! (Her tip was to take your time – a good tip for me since patience in the kitchen is not necessarily one of my virtues). My only gripe with Bake…as a show is that the recipe measurements are given in cups, whereas I’m certain that as a professional (and very precise) baker, Anna herself would use weight measurements.

Laminated pastry: where bread meets puff pastry
Laminated pastry: where bread meets puff pastry

I based the filled croissants on the divine Italian-style cornetti I’d enjoyed on a holiday in Croatia a few years ago. My boyfriend and I popped into a local bakery and got some croissants, only to discover, to our delight, that unlike the plain, buttery French-style croissants, these were filled with vanilla-flecked pastry cream (the flavour of the pastry cream can vary). I later discovered that they were in fact Italian, and were cornetti rather than croissants. Apparently the dough is slightly different: cornetti dough is sweeter, more enriched and less laminated, resulting in a softer, sweeter end product. Be that as it may, the ones I had were definitely pretty close to croissant dough and I recreated them as such. Sorry, Italy – but my heart truly belongs to France. My version was quite a bit smaller and less filled than the professional bakery version.

Cornetti with pastry cream
Cornetti with pastry cream (background shots of apple turnovers and maple-pecan-bacon plaits)

Where it all definitely got a bit more technical was in the shaping of the croissants; there’s definitely a knack to it and my efforts were certainly misshapen. The creme patissiere filling mostly squelched out of the sides – but enough was captured in the centre to make them deliciously gooey and comforting.

The apple turonver is a lonely hunter
The apple turonver is a lonely hunter

The apple turnovers were, as you might imagine, the simplest: make some applesauce. Stamp out rounds of the laminated dough, add a spoonful of applesauce, fold over, egg wash, sprinkle with demerara sugar, bake. Apple turnovers were some of my favourite childhood treats and, although the ones I made were bitesize rather than the palm-sized confections my father would occasionally buy me, they were definitely a step up from the Delifrance.

The maple-pecan-bacon plait, meanwhile, was inspired by one of my favourite pre-diet indulgences from the Tesco/Sainsbury’s/Co-op aisle. (Yes, I know that my penchant for these pastries – which, in their supermarket incarnation, aren’t even all that good – explains why I am currently on a diet). I added the bacon to the standard maple-pecan plait to counterbalance the sweetness – the supermarket versions are extremely sugary – and provide a textural contrast, as well as the intensely salty, savoury counterpoint that makes bacon pancakes drenched in syrup so luscious. The filling also contains cream cheese, which adds another slightly salty, savoury component which prevents the filling from being over-sweet while also adding a lactic creaminess. I made this as one large plait which was cut into smaller portions after baking, though I think, in retrospect, that they would have come out more neatly had I cut them prior to baking.

The plaiting was surprisingly easy to do and the technique could be applied to lots of baked goods . This blog has a detailed pictorial step-by-step guide which I printed out and followed faithfully when making the pastry braid, but I’ve also included some diagrammes and detailed steps, and a link to a video, in the instructions below in case you want to make this recipe or just use the braiding technique to any recipe of your own. The finish is surprisingly professional and will impress your friends and lovers.

While the shaping of the croissants was undeniably difficult, making a plait is pretty breezy. Try it – lots of fun.

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Baking challenge: on a profiterole – crackpot croquembouche

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 showstopper challenge for week six (dessert week) of series two: croquembouche.

A profiterole tower is for life, not just for Pinterest
A profiterole tower is for life, not just for Pinterest

Is there anything more gloriously, resplendently French than a croquembouche? Delicate, perfectly crisp profiterole shells encasing soft cream, with a crisp and shattering glaze of caramel holding them all together, piled high, served at weddings and other celebratory communal events, a creation from the dazzling and spectacular mind of Marie-Antoine Careme. And the showstopper challenge of dessert week.

There is a reason croquembouche was selected as the showstopper challenge: it is not a simple task and I admit I was not, strictly speaking, worthy of it. I didn’t really make a croquembouche, more a piled-up tower of profiteroles stacked up into a peak. As it was I found the experience of building exceptionally stressful and can’t imagine how I would have felt had I opted for a proper croquembouche experience.

I also eschewed making a full-on croquembouche, with the little profiteroles stuck to a cone mould, delicately removed at the end of the assembly-job, on cost grounds. A proper metal croquembouche mould is expensive and would have been a pointless piece of kitchen kit to own, even by my admittedly relaxed standards on what exactly constitutes ‘pointless’. A lot of recipes on the internet suggested using, instead, a foil-wrapped polystyrene cone, which sounds like an excellent solution, but I had a window of free time and didn’t want to wait for something ordered online to arrive, and just couldn’t face traipsing to art shops around London to find one (I did have a quick peek in a local art shop). I recalled that Holly Bell, one of the series two finalists, had actually piled her profiteroles up and just decided to do that. However, because of this decision, my profiterole tower can hardly claim to have reached the lofty heights of a true croquembouche. On the other hand, I would have run out of both profiteroles and stomach capacity had I opted for one of traditional height.

Although as I’ve said above the croquembouche is a quintessentially French dessert, I added a Belgian twist by making a speculoos paste filling, using a recipe from a book I picked up on impulse a few trips ago. Juliette’s Speculoos is all about speculoos, those ubiquitous spiced Belgian biscuits, and the flavours are translated into a variety of different desserts, such as tiramisu. Regrettably the instructions aren’t as clear as they could be (even in the original Dutch book which I have) and I definitely overcooked the paste, making it a little harder, drier and more candy-like than I would have wished. So I’d say definitely go slow when making this and don’t let the mixture boil. Instead of using caramel to bind – as speculoos already has a caramelised flavour – I used a chocolate ganache, made with a little less cream than usual to ensure it was firm. When using chocolate for binding, I would recommend letting it cool carefully between layers and ensuring the croquembouche is kept in a cool place, because if the chocolate melts everything will slide around.

Contestant Mary-Anne Boermans’ croquembouche was balanced on a praline base; to tie the flavours together I made a chocolate shortbread base to balance the profiterole tower on. I will say that shortbread probably isn’t the ideal choice because the texture is very tender and breakable, but it is a very good recipe.

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Baking challenge: my my, miss strawberry meringue pie

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 showstopper challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: a meringue pie.

During Wimbledon, it really gets crazy…and we eat strawberries and cream and root for our favourite tennis players. My boyfriend loves Roger Federer, and who can blame him? A beautiful man who plays a beautiful game. A man who can rock a cardigan and still look like a hero.

Who could blame a man-crush? - Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Who could blame a man-crush? – Roger Federer French Open 2015 by Carine06 from UK. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m always behind Andy Murray, which can be hard to justify since he doesn’t…make a habit of winning finals. For me, Murray is like an intrepid and determined schoolchild who works incredibly hard to achieve his ambitions and to reach the upper echelons, while Novak Djokovich and Federer are like the cooler kids who do everything flawlessly while also dressing really well and dating the hot cheerleaders and make it look easy. Yes, they may be fantastic, but who has more heart, eh?

Ladies and gentlemen, this is when personal psychology meets national sporting events. Because, let’s get real, Djokovich and Federer train incredibly hard too. But the more elegantly they play, the more I stubbornly root for Murray. (Though a part of me knows that only in tennis could you be ranked world number 3 and still be seen as a natural underdog). There is something elatable about that tenacity.

I’m not even British.

Right, back to baking, since this is, after all, a food blog. But it’s a food blog where baking and tennis intersected, be it ever so briefly. When I was thinking up what kind of meringue pie to back for the old baking challenge, I kept thinking that what I really wanted to make was an homage to the classic accompaniment to the Wimbledon Championships, strawberries and cream (it sounds really random now because I’m writing this up months after the event, but I baked it to serve at a Wimbledon Men’s Finals viewing party).

Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling
Strawberry meringue pie: naked filling. A tennis championship classic and baking intersected here

Well, it’s a classic for the viewers in the stands and at home – I doubt the players themselves are wolfing down sugary fruit and dairy once they return to their…tents/hotel rooms/wherever the hell they sleep. I mean, Djokovich doesn’t even eat gluten! Or tomatoes! Gluten and tomatoes – for the weak. Wimbledon grass – for the strong.

TENNIS TALK ENDS HERE

So, strawberry pie it was, with a thick, marshmallowy layer of slightly sticky meringue. The meringue I made was blasted with a blowtorch, which gives it an amazing toasted, scorched flavour. In fact I blasted every mouthful with the torch to ensure my portions of meringue were as toasted as they could get. Divine. A torch gives much more control than a grill – especially my grill, which is more smoke than heat.

A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue - a match made in heaven
A dazzling combination of sweet fruit and gooey, caramelised meringue – a match made in heaven

I thought I’d made up strawberry meringue pie, as I’d never seen nor heard of it before, but no – people had gotten there before me. I contemplated making up my own recipe but opted for one from the enviably gorgeous Sift and Whisk blog. Blog envy: I have it. The photography, the lighting and styling – all beautiful. I’m more of a ‘throw on a plate, photograph for 30 seconds under murky yellow overhead light, eat dinner, wonder why photo isn’t all beautiful’.

This pie is filled with both fresh strawberries and a fresh strawberry filling thickened with tapioca. The recipe calls for the tapioca pearls to be ground and, although I tried using my mini food processor for this, as directed, it’s difficult for the blades to grind down such a tiny amount, and I’d recommend pounding with a mortar and pestle instead. I struggled to find tapioca pearls in standard supermarkets and ended up buying a bag from an Indian corner shop, where, predictably, they had multiple sizes of pearls and I came away with enough tapioca for the rest of my life and change from £1.00.

The recipe also calls for 1.25kg strawberries, and this was far, far too much when I made it. Since you both place cut strawberries onto the pie and pour over a strawberry puree filling, it really is much better to go by eye; once you have covered the circumference of your tart shell with the hulled berries, you’re done. I used slightly less than a kilo of strawberries in total, for both puree and whole fruit.

Finally: this is not a bake, slice and serve pie; it really benefits from lengthy and patient chilling at each stage so that the filling can set. Perfect for a make-ahead dinner party, less for a quickly dashed-off dessert to present to people who’ve just dropped by (for that category of visitor, make scones!). If you serve it soon after baking and assembly, the pie will taste nice but be decidedly leaky/sloppy.

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Baking challenge: who ate all the miniature pork pies?

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 technical challenge for week five (pastry week) of series two: make six miniature pork pies with a perfectly cooked (of course!) quail egg in the centre.

Pork pies – who doesn’t love them? They are an essential part of British food culture, an indigenous tradition – and, much like the mince pie, not one I have taken to. Dense pastry and pork do not set this non-Brit’s heart alight, and the combination of eggs and meat is one I have serious difficulties with. I grew up in Singapore and scarcely ate any Chinese or Malay food when I lived there, and I’ve realised that the ubiquitous addition of eggs to meat stews and laksas had much to do with eat.

A tower of pies
A tower of pies

But to my British boyfriend and a dear friend these pies were truly delightful, with their fresh, meaty filling, the touch of bacon giving it depth of flavour, and the parsley a hint of freshness. For my boyfriend, the egg in the middle which was my personal nemesis was his favourite part – he described it as a ‘lovely surprise’ when he ate the first pie (as he wasn’t aware they were in there) and as something to look forward to. So there we go. It takes all sorts, really.

I actually ended up repeating this recipe (both batches eaten gratefully by the boyfriend and friend), and so below can go into some extra tips I picked up along the way.

Could have been more golden.
Could have been more golden.

A warning of sorts to those who may wish to try out this Paul Hollywood recipe for themselves: quail’s eggs are the very devil to peel. In the how-to video Mary recommends peeling the eggs as soon as they are cool, but even so I found it quite difficult.

This recipe is made not with shortcrust pastry, but the more traditional hot water crust pastry, which starts off life sticky but becomes dry and brittle relatively quickly. Work fast. I covered it in a damp tea towel in between rolling and stamping out the pie cases and tops to ensure it didn’t dry out. Don’t rest it as you would a shortcrust pastry. Lard – used in the pastry – smells disgusting, especially when melted, so be prepared. A food processor makes it easier to chop up all the pie filling, though be gentle – you don’t want to end up with a smooth, homogenous paste. Finally, I found using jumbo muffin tins about a thousand times easier to make the pies in than a standard-sized muffin tin.

Finally, reader – I did not make the gelatine. This was principally because the promised hollow or gap within the pie never materialised. My pies were crammed full of meat and egg and the filling didn’t shrink. It did bubble juicily out of the pastry, however, where it baked on sticky and black and actually looked quite appetising, I thought.

At risk of rambling I feel that I must add that although these are called ‘small pork pies’ they are by no means ‘mini’ – they’re small only relative to one of those huge full-size pork pies.

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Baking challenge: flaky family pie

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 five (pastry week) of series two: make a hearty family pie with rough puff or flaky pastry; no pastry base.

This savoury pastry dish combines two family favourites: pie and stew. I actually made much of this recipe up, as I got it into my head that I wanted to make an Irish stew pie (not least because I was serving it to friends, one of whom doesn’t eat beef but loves lamb), and none of my cookbooks yielded a recipe. In fact I thought I’d made up the concept completely, but Darina Allen refers to it in her magnificent Irish Traditional Cooking, although she found the recipe in a manuscript cookbook and says that she’s never heard of it in any other place. The recipe Darina offers up is very plain – meat, potatoes, onions – but my version is more colourful with vegetables (including carrots, which seem to be a controversial ingredient in Irish stew), although I think it retains an authentically simple flavour profile: just salt, pepper, parsley – and the parsley needn’t even be flat-leaf if you don’t mind (not that it’s easy to get hold of curly parsley anymore). The pie had substantive gravy (though it was thin – you will need to add thickener of some description if you would like it more gelatinous) and was utterly delicious: hearty, satisfying, quite warming, yet light and wonderful to eat. I thought it was really ideal for early spring, when the body starts hankering for lighter, brighter flavours but actually it’s still pretty cold and you need something that will stick to your ribs.

Irish stew pie
Irish stew pie

The flaky pastry recipe I used was from Delia Smith. I don’t always turn to Delia instinctively but this recipe is absolutely perfect, utterly simple, and explained very well (I find some Delia recipes quite pedantic and prescriptive). I have used this one for a number of years and frankly I think it is unbeatable. People always compliment me on the pastry when I make this version, even though it is very simple to make. The recipe produces light, delicately flaky layers, and many people mistake this flaky pastry for a much more involved puff pastry on account of how crunchy, buttery and multi-layered it is. Indeed the friends who I served the pie to thought it was puff pastry, and both are experienced bakers. I suggest that you tuck up the recipe and use it for all manner of things: rough handheld fruit pies, sausage rolls, apple turnovers.

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