Sunday, 4 March 2012

Heartbreak Cake

We're not quite at the precise anniversary yet, but around this time last year I had my heart broken. It was the kind of betrayal that leaves you whimpering through snotty, high-pitched sobs almost indecipherable to human ears. I thought I'd never get over it. You always think you'll never get over it. But you always do. Even if at the time if feels as though the sun may never shine again. It may leave a scar, you may never forgive and you probably won't forget, but you move on to better things and to much better people. 

Sharing heartbreak publicly always treads a fine line between simply wearing your heart on your sleeve and excessive over-sharing. Even in the depths of despair I always think it's wise to grab that moment of clarity where you question whether your tweets or Facebook updates include too much information. If you have to ask the question, they probably do. So I made a conscious decision to keep my heartache fairly quiet or cryptic online. There's nothing worse than making people feel awkward in your company. 

But more than just trying to be polite, I was so sad that I felt unable to cook. I lost all interest in most creative things. I believe I mentioned this at the time, but I discovered that sadness totally stunts my creativity. I know there are some who find that wallowing in melancholy inspires them, but not me. 

I was alone in the house and felt a sudden and intense urge to bake. Inspired by a Lorraine Pascale recipe in the Observer Food Monthly, that I adapted to fit my own Victoria sponge baking preferences, I baked a lemon Victoria sandwich. It emerged from the oven more perfectly formed than any cake I have ever baked. For the first time in more weeks than I care to remember, I felt a flicker of my old self again. Cheesy as it sounds, that cake was a like big pink sticking plaster over the enormous chasm in the middle of my chest.

I've baked this cake several times since that first attempt, adapting it each time until it became truly mine. Every time I made it, I was reminded of how I originally stumbled across it. Every time that started with a brief sigh filled with bad memories, before culminating in a joyous face full of fluffy, zingy cake and a comfortingly predictable reminder that all bad experiences ultimately improve.

Last weekend I decided to make it again to mark the end of a strange and, at times, very painful year. To make it extra special, I made the lemon and lime curd that's sandwiched between the two cakes myself, rather that buy it ready made. I was shocked at how simple it was. 

I found a recipe on the BBC food pages, adapting it to include limes and to make less than the original recipe stated.

To make just one jar I used these quantities instead: 

2 whole eggs + 1 yolk 
zest and juice of 1 large lemon
zest and juice of 2 large limes 
100g sugar 
75g butter

The first cake I baked was a disaster. It's never gone wrong before. It tasted fine but, for some odd reason, it didn't rise. I baked almost like a biscuit. If this cake was going to mark end of something, I had to be good, so I started all over again. The second time it was beautiful.

The decoration came about more as a case of serendipity than design, but I'll always try to make that crack down the middle happen. When life gives you lemons, make some curd. Least sexy advice ever! 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Soufflé Suissesse: When it's okay to ask for help

Last year I acquired a copy of Michel Roux Jr's Cooking With The Master Chef. I was thrilled to flick through it and find the recipe for the famous Soufflé Suissesse - the signature dish at Le Gavroche. It's the dish and the restaurant Michel inherited from his father, Albert.

Soufflé Suissesse - double baked soufflé sitting in double cream and covered in cheese -  is the stuff of legend. It's supposed to have a thousand calories per plate, but I don't believe that. Even if I did, I'd still eat it. I made it a few times last year, having never made a soufflé before. Gorgeous as the flavours were, I always got the feeling it wasn't quite as it should be. But then, if Michelin-starred cooking was that easy, they'd be handing stars out like eggs at Easter.

I'm not fortunate enough to have eaten at Le Gavroche yet, and I'd only ever seen pictures of how it's supposed to look online. The book doesn't include a picture. When you've been cooking a while, you tend not to need incredibly detailed instructions and step-by-step photos or illustrations. The vocabulary of the kitchen becomes familiar. One of my favourite books, The Geometry of Pasta, includes only basic black illustrations of pasta shapes and very uncomplicated recipe instructions. It is a thing of beauty.

Sometimes though, you need someone to show you exactly how something's done. Especially if the person who created that recipe is Albert Roux. By chance, I ended up watching The Roux Legacy on the Good Food Channel one night. During one of the two episodes I watched, Albert and Michel Sr. made Soufflé Suissesse and I watched intently, noting all the things I'd been doing wrong.

Not having even thought about it for months, I was consumed with making it again with all this new knowledge. Albert mentioned during the show that this isn't really a dish you make for just one person. It's one you make for a few people. He's completely right, of course. The amounts you need to make just one are so small, it feels more fiddly than it should be. But as nobody else wanted one, I went about it the hard way.

The first thing my TV taught me, was that I was being far too delicate with the egg whites. That was easy to fix. I made them firmer than I had before and wasn't too precious about mixing them into the milk, butter and flour.

I poured the mixture into a greased ramekin. Albert did not use a ramekin. He used individual, shallow pie dishes. There's a reason for this. Have you ever taken a molten hot ramekin from the oven and tried tipping it out? Don't! It is practically impossible. Still, this was my choice of vessel and I had to persevere.

While the soufflé cooks for the first time, salted double cream is warmed through and poured into an ovenproof dish. Once it's cooked, the soufflé is carefully (hah!) tipped into the cream, cheese is added (cheddar and emmental in my case) and it's returned to the oven for its second baking. Once the cheese has melted into the cream, it's ready to be devoured.

Did it look perfect? Absolutely not. The ramekin debacle broke it slightly on tipping. I'll know for next time. The flavours and texture, however, were amazing. For something so small, it's strange how stomach-achingly immobilised you feel afterwards. Worth every tiny calorie.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

366 Photo Project: January 29th - February 4th

Another week in pictures courtesy of Chantelle's prompts. 

Goose fat leftover from Christmas, nestling up against less heart stopping pots and jars. If you have no goose or duck fat in your fridge, you can never hope to produce a proper roast potato. Never! 

I love when nature mingles with everyday objects. These training trousers were left outside to dry after washing, but it was so cold they froze. Not spectacular by snowy country standards, but in a place notorious for its almost continuous rainfall, quite a feat. 

In bed, no make-up, editing photos for this project while becoming the subject of a later one. You may start singing The Circle of Life now....

This picture is a double cheat. Not only was it taken on a different day to the prompt, but it was also taken on my phone rather than with my proper camera. Some mornings I'm lucky to get myself through the door and off to work. Remembering to pick my camera up too is sometimes a step too far for my sleepy brain. This is the view from my new office, but taken a day or two after the prompt, on a beautifully sunny and freezing day. It's my absolute favourite kind of weather.

This is my copy of Sarra Manning's new novel - Nine Uses For An Ex-Boyfriend. I haven't made the big dent in it that I wanted to yet, but I've made a spirited start. I love Sarra's writing. I cooed over You Don't Have To Say You Love Me here. It was my favourite book of last year.

On Friday evening I made some fruit scones for the first time. More on them in a later post. I forgot to buy orange juice so I had to squeeze some clementines for juice to soak the dried fruits in. It was a highly pleasurable (and sticky) experience!

Here's the thing. On Saturday is snowed, the Six Nations rugby union tournament started with two daytime matches, and we had a large supply of bacon baps and scones. No actual strangers were photographed, but as this was the first time all winter it had properly snowed, you could say the stranger was the snow itself.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Packaging Crush: LØV Organic

When I first became interested in design in my late teens, I was all about modern design. I loved block colours, clean lines, shiny surfaces and minimalism. How I ever thought I'd survive as a minimalist, I'll never know. I am the epitome of a hoarder. I love 'things'. 

Over the past few years, I've found myself pulled in completely the opposite direction. All I wanted were hyper-pretty things. I have a theory on this, but it's rather personal, so I'll refrain from boring you with it. Just lately, my love of new and clever design is returning, and it feels ever so nice. Personal style is a moving target and I quite like that mine has started oscillating again. The most pleasing thing of all is that I seem to be finding a happy medium between highly feminine and contemporary, practical design. Mixed together carefully they are the best of both worlds. 

This return to a love of clean lines and block colours may be why this range of teas from French based company LØV Organic called to me. And no, that's not a French word, it's a Scandinavian word used for 'leaf'.  The bright packaging popped out of the screen while virtually strolling around the Selfridges food hall and, before I knew it, I'd navigated my way to the LØV website and ordered the sample box.  

The teas themselves are a mixed bag. I found that the English Breakfast and the Earl Grey weren't nearly as intense as my British tastes require. More pleasing are the fruit and herb based teas, which manage to have delicate flavours without feeling like they're lacking in any way. The ginger-lemon tea is lovely, as is the Zen 'relaxing' flavour, which is a combination of apple, lemon balm, blackberry leaves, orange and caramel scents. 

Most successful (according to my taste buds) are the jasmine, the mint and the rose. The jasmine and mint fill the room with their fresh scent, yet still manage not to taste like cleaning products. I've mentioned countless times my love of all things rose flavoured, and this is the first rose tea that actually smells like a bed of roses when you breathe in its steam, not something better suited to a boudoir candle. 

If fruit and herbal tea is your thing, I recommend giving the sample box a whirl. At £7.99 for 20 teabags or up to £9.99 for a 100g caddy of leaves for individual favours, they're a bit of a treat. I'm glad I scoped out what I liked before investing. Enjoy the gorgeous packaging....

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Bacon Brownies: Pick a Side

I have a challenge for you. Go up to your nearest and dearest and tell them you're going to bake bacon brownies. Just to be precise, that's brownies with bacon in them. My guess is that their reaction will go one of two ways. The first reaction involves being met with a look falling somewhere between disgust and confusion, completely disbelieving that pork and chocolate can happily cohabit in your mouth. The second is an expression of such utter bliss that you may have to keep your left hand in your pocket for fear of being showered in marriage proposals. Or keep it out, if you're chasing nuptials.

My bacon brownie experience was an interesting experiment in clashing food cultures. Allowing for generalisations, the expressions of wonderment and almost giddy anticipation were mostly North American. Those approaching the platter of rich squares with a sideways glance and the caution you might summon when snatching cheese from a mousetrap were largely British.Yes, I have tried snatching something from a set mousetrap. And yes, it hurt. 

Personally, the idea of sweet and salty things together seems perfectly reasonable. Chocolate covered pretzels, sea salt studded fudge and sweet caramelised onions with feta or halloumi all sit rather comfortably with me. Sophie Dahl describes her Peanut Butter Fudge as being the food that reminds her of eating sweet ice cream on the beach as a kid, while accidentally licking her fingers, salty from swimming in the sea. If that raises the same nostalgic smile for you as it does for me, we're probably living in the same flavour camp.

Maybe the leap of faith for those who pitch their tents elsewhere is that bacon brownies aren't just a combined mouthful of sugar and salt, but cake and meat.

In North America this isn't unusual. I used to think the American breakfast of stacked pancakes, sticky syrup and streaky bacon was sheer madness; until I went there, got taken out for breakfast (a very American thing in itself) and discovered that my fellow diners weren't as crazy as I thought. In fact, it became something I craved every time I was forced to leave the US. In Britain, only those who've had the same Transatlantic culinary epiphany seem to have jumped the fence to the other campsite. 

Filled with do-gooder thoughts of turning my friends and family who still arched their noses up at this flavour sensation, I set about baking Nigella Lawson's bacon brownies with the gusto of an evangelical preacher. "If your heart, is, heavy. If your faith, is, weak. Hold out your hand and let me share with thee the holy gift of rich, deep, oozing chocolate, punctuated with salted nuggets of caramelised bacon and I GUARANTEE your pain will be healed!" 

I hoped the reaction would be so extreme that converts would fall at my feet in gratitude. In practice, telling people there were shards of pork in their dessert garnered mixed reactions. If I had my time over again, I wouldn't have told them. For those who gave the brownies a thumbs down, it was the idea itself that seemed to block off whether they were enjoying the flavour or not. Maybe next time I'll pick some unassuming victims and accidentally-on-purpose forget to tell them there might be bacon in the brownies. Unless they're vegetarians, of course. Actually, bacon is often the kryptonite of many a veggie. Give it a try!* You might be doing them a favour.

*I will not be held legally responsible for any repercussions.

The only real work in this recipe is preparing and caramelising the bacon in golden syrup, which is actually terribly easy. Once fried and drowned in syrup, the bacon is set aside while the brownie mixture is made. As it cools, it hardens, leaving a moreish bacon butterscotch that if you can restrain yourself from picking at, your resolve is stronger than mine. For cardiac purposes though, it may be worth remembering that it's not butter, but solid bacon fat cocooned in sugar. Mmmm bacon fat.

The cake is made following the recipe and the bacon caramel crumbled in before baking. I also added an extra squirt of golden syrup, as the mixture was slightly more bitter than I knew my guinea pigs would like.

The result, a platter of pure heaven. So, which camp are you pitching your tent in?

Thursday, 2 February 2012

366 Photo Project: January 22nd - 28th

A little later than I would have hoped, as explained in the last post, here are my daily photos for last week.  The prompts for the coming month are here. 

I've had these pumps for ages and I wear them more than any other pair. They've been very good to me. They're so comfortable and they go with almost every pair of trousers I own. I'll be sad when they finally take their last step, which may be rather soon indeed. 

A few weeks ago while scouting around the attic, an old vanity case given to me by my grandmother appeared. She gave it to me when I was a little girl and I used to play with it. I had intended on using it, but the damp of the attic had given it a musty smell. It also wasn't in the good condition I remembered. The case was filled with the pin badges I collected as a kid. You can tell I'm a child of the 80s! 

It's so strange looking at things you haven't really paid attention to since you were a child. It's amazing how familiar an object can be when you probably haven't seen it in 20 years. I love the colours of this badge. David Morgan was a department store in Cardiff. It was the last of the old fashioned department stores in town. It closed down a few years ago and the enormous building was turned into luxury apartments and modern shops.

When I was off sick for all those weeks, I watched Wanted Down Under every morning. It takes British families considering emigrating to Australia or New Zealand to the country they're interested in, shows them the way or life, the cost of living and drums home exactly what emigrating means in terms of being away from friends and family. After I went back to work I watched the episodes on the BBC iPlayer while cooking the tea. I don't feel that guilty, but you always get funny looks admitting there's something on daytime TV you actually enjoy. 

It had been months since I last made a pizza from scratch. After making this batch, I remembered why. Making dough, creating a sauce, chopping your toppings and putting them all together takes far longer than I ever remember. They were definitely worth the time and effort though. This one was topped with two kinds of cheese, pepperoni, red onions. pointed red peppers and basil. 

I couldn't pick just one picture for this one, so I chose three. The packets are from a sample box of French tea, which I'll blog soon. To their right is a picture of my efforts to spruce up my rather drab new desk at work. The stained glass light catcher was bought on a trip to Northern Michigan a few years ago. The two cats are exactly like my own. I couldn't leave the shop without it. 

Everyone was allowed to leave work an hour early last Friday, so I waited until late to eat my lunch at home. I ate an unremarkable meal, but I ate it in my kitchen, overlooked by a lovely rainbow. It made a quiet moment feel a little more special. 

There's a street lamp right outside my bedroom window. Here it's shining through the drizzly rain on my window, right before going to bed. I love how the glass looks gilded and mottled.