Thursday, 28 July 2011

Moussaka: loving comfort for summer

We've had some crazy weather this year. Winter was one of the most wintery imaginable and spring was a scorcher. We even had a barbecue on Easter Monday when we spent a wonderful day in the garden. Summer, not surprisingly, has so far been a mixed bag. On some of the more dismal days I've yearned for classic comfort food and we've had casseroles and shepherds pie (and Simon Hopkinson's baked pasta with porcini), but this week I particularly fancied moussaka.

I have very close friends (including a godson) in Athens who I've been thinking about a lot lately and, over the years, they've treated me to some magnificent Greek home cooking. 

As well as amazing seafood and salads, memorable meals have included little pies filled with courgettes and dill and, of course, moussaka. It's the kind of dish the older mothers cook for the younger generation to enjoy after a day at work. As is customary in hot climates, dishes like this are served warmish (even tepid). I find moussaka a bit oily at this temperature and much prefer it hot. Until this week I hadn't realised quite how much work went into this dish – it took me about at two hours of hands-on cooking! In Greece, I'm sure they're much more nifty, but, even so, moussaka is a real labour of love.

I used a recipe from the Leith's Cookery Bible which tasted very similar to moussakas lovingly prepared by Xeni, my godson's grandmother. I doubled the amount of sauce and tweaked the recipe accordingly. 

(serves 4)
olive oil
675g lean lamb, minced
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 tomatoes (I used 3 tablespoons of chopped tinned tomatoes)
150ml dry white wine
150ml pint water
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
a pinch of grated nutmeg
1 medium aubergine
2 large potatoes, peeled
15g dried breadcrumbs
30g butter
30g plain flour
1 bay leaf
600ml milk
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp double cream
110g Cheddar cheese, grated

Heat a little oil in a large saucepan and brown the meat in it. Tip off any excess fat. Put the meat in a bowl. Add the onions and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Return the meat to the pan. If you're using fresh tomatoes, dip them in boiling water for 10 minutes, peel, chop and add to the meat. Or spoon in the tinned tomatoes. Add the wine, water, salt, pepper, parsley and nutmeg and cook over a low heat, stirring often, for 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Preheat the oven to 170°C/Gas Mark 3. Cut the aubergine into thin slices, salt lightly and leave for about 30 minutes for some of the juice to drain out. Rinse and dry well on a cloth. Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until just tender. Cool and slice.

Heat a little more oil in a frying pan and fry each slice of aubergine on both sides until well browned, but not burnt. Put the aubergine slices in the bottom of a large casserole (or oven-proof dish). Sprinkle on the breadcrumbs. Now tip in half the meat mixture. Put half the sliced potato in next, seasoning with salt and pepper, then the remaining meat, and then the rest of the potato.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the flour, add the bay leaf and then the milk, and stir constantly until it comes to the boil. Season with salt and pepper and leave simmering while you mix the egg yolks and cream in a bowl. 

Pour the sauce on to the egg yolks and cream, stirring all the time. Add half the cheese. Pour the sauce over the casserole. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top.

Cook in the preheated oven for 1 hour, then test with a skewer; the whole mass should be soft. The top should be browned too, but if not, finish off under the grill.

While any number of Greek wines would have been ideal (notably juicy ripe reds from Nemea or their modern, elegant rosés), we didn't have any to hand. However, our bottle of Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010 (produced for them by Chapoutier, £6.79) hit the spot perfectly with its supple, ripe, peppery fruit and balanced acidity. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Simon Hopkinson's baked pasta with porcini

Last Friday a new cookery series started on BBC1, without much fanfare and rather anonymously titled The Good Cook. On closer inspection, this was the TV debut of Simon Hopkinson. Although Hopkinson was a notable chef (at Hilaire in South Kensington, before working for Terence Conran at Bibendum), he is widely regarded as one of our greatest cookery writers with his books Roast Chicken and Other Stories and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken.

I was delighted to finally see Hopkinson on the box as, on a personal level, his understated manner has always appealed to me. It is filmed in his West London flat which I recognised from an interview by Lynn Barber that the Observer Food Monthly published a few years ago. Despite some slightly jarring slow-motion sequences, it is a delightful programme. It covers quite a lot of ground in 30 minutes, including five recipes and whistle-stop visits to Italy for porcini mushrooms and Collioure in France for anchovies; I'd have preferred 45 minutes or even an hour in his interesting and relaxing company. (As my husband had been putting our daughter to bed while I was watching it, I happily sat through it again with him as we'd recorded it.) He is open and personable, reminding me of another great natural cook, Nigel Slater. He could be his slightly more reserved uncle or older brother.

On Saturday evening I cooked one of the recipes from the programme, following the recipe on the BBC website for baked pappardelle with pancetta and porcini. I used penne instead of pappardelle and doubled the quantities as I (wrongly) thought there wouldn't be enough for us. It was a bit involved, using several pans and taking longer than we thought, but the results were delectable.

Baked pasta with porcini
(serves 3–4)
1 litre whole milk
40g dried porcini mushrooms
80g butter
50g plain flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g pasta (ideally pappardelle, but penne worked well)
100g pancetta (we used a pack of cubetti, rather than sliced rashers)
10 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Pre-heat the oven to 190°C/Gas Mark 5.

Warm the milk in a large pan until it just starts to simmer. Add the dried porcini and remove from the heat. Allow infuse for 10 minutes while you wash the pan. Strain the milk through a sieve into a bowl, using the back of a ladle to extract all the liquid. Set the mushrooms aside.

Make the sauce by melting the butter in the large pan, then stir in the flour and continue stirring over a low heat for 3 minutes. Pour the porcini-infused milk onto roux in the pan and whisk vigorously until smooth. Continue cooking over a low heat for about 10 minutes until the sauce thickens and starts to bubble. (This was quite tiring.) Lightly season with salt and pepper and set aside (I kept stirring it to stop a skin forming or you could cover the surface with clingfilm).

Meanwhile, cook the pasta and lightly fry the pancetta in a small pan (Hopkinson uses thinner slices pancetta which probably wouldn't require this step). Drain the pasta and combine well with the sauce, pancetta and porcini.

Butter an oven-proof dish and pour in the pasta mix. Sprinkle grated Parmesan over the top – plenty as we did, or reserve some for serving – and bake for 30–40 minutes until golden-brown and bubbling around the edges. Serve piping hot. We had ours with rocket, a deliciously tangy contrast to the rich pasta.

Earlier in the week I'd been to a fascinating tasting of Mediterranean wines at Theatre of Wine. I was tempted to buy a couple of the wines and I thought one of them, Volubilia Gris 2010 (Domaine de la Zouina, £8.50), a delicately coloured Moroccan rosé would be interesting with the rich, creamy, earthy pasta. This rather chic wine has a fresh, poised structure, aromatic red fruit with hints of exotic spices which, to be honest, would go with any number of dishes. It would also make a mouthwatering apéritif.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Sweets for my sweet

It's been a busy couple of weeks. Busy, satisfying and a bit sticky. On Saturday, just after spending three days in Burgundy, I was helping out at my daughter's school summer fête, manning a stall selling jars of sweets to raise funds. We'd collected used jam jars from other parents which we filled with sweets and decorated with gingham fabric. Even if we say so ourselves, they looked pretty tempting!

Some sweets had been bought, such as chocolate eclairs and jelly strawberries, but others I'd made at home: smoked salt tablet, rocky road, chocolate fruit and nut clusters, peppermint creams and honeycomb. It turns out I love making sweets – I'm becoming a dab-hand with my sugar thermometer – as long as I can give most of them away. My self-control is a work in progress. Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book (BBC Books) includes some useful recipes, as does Indulgence: Petits Fours, A Fine Selection of Sweet Treats (Murdoch Books), but here are a couple of recipes.

Peppermint creams
My good friend, Mrs M, recently shared a recipe for peppermint creams. She uses egg white, combined with peppermint essence and sifted icing sugar to make a malleable dough. As I was making mine in advance, I decided, after a bit of online research, to use water instead of egg white. I kneaded together the ingredients, starting with the sugar and 2 teaspoons peppermint essence, adding enough water to make it smooth and pliable. You can shape them by hand, but I rolled out the dough to a thickness of about 5mm on a surface dusted with more icing sugar and used a small shot glass to cut out the mints. Leave them to dry out on a cooking tray covered with greaseproof paper. The dough goes a long way. A 500g pack of sugar yields about 60 mints if you keep gathering up the offcuts, kneading and re-rolling. I didn't dip my mints in dark chocolate as per Mrs M, but almost certainly will next time.

This was much more dramatic and like a school science experiment. Firstly grease a 20 x 30cm baking tray and line with greaseproof paper. Place 325g caster sugar, 2 tablespoons honey, 80ml liquid glucose and 80ml water in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Over a low heat, dissolved the sugar, stirring well with a wooden spoon, increase the heat to medium and bring to the boil. Once it is bubbling away, remove the spoon and leave to boil until it reaches 150°C/300°F (hard crack stage). This takes 8 to 10 minutes and the colour will darken to an amber tone. Once the caramel is ready, you need to quickly stir in 1 tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda. Pour the foamy caramel into the prepared baking tray and leave to set. Cut into pieces or break into shards. Honeycomb can, of course, be dipped in chocolate (I prefer to use 70% dark chocolate). Sprinkling it over ice cream wouldn't be too bad either.