Saturday, 22 February 2014

Gluten-Free Lemon & Ricotta Cake

I went on a course once that was almost cult-like in its attempt to change your life through the power of positive thinking.  We had to practice all sorts of mantras and meditations, visualising our better selves becoming the best possible version we could be.  No limits, we were told.  Dream big.  Whatever you want to, you can do it.  It speaks volumes about the size of my ambition that one of the things I dreamt of having was perfectly manicured nails.  And the thing is, it might be a load of hogwash, but for a couple of months back in 2001, I had awesome nails.  

I tell you this because one other thing I really remember from this course was the idea that if you tidied up for visitors, you were insulting yourself; you should value yourself so highly that your house should be visitor-ready spick and span at all times, just for you.  And while I love the thought of that, I'm assuming I'm not meditating hard enough on having a perfect house because, well, frankly I'd rather be doing plenty of other stuff, nails included, than spend a million hours per week cleaning my skirting boards.  I will always, always be the person who, the night before a visitor, runs round manically with the hoover in one hand and the duster in the other, while with the other hand (still counting?) stir up something welcoming and hopefully delicious in the kitchen.  I definitely assume that distracting someone for long enough means that they won't be bothered about the lack of domestic goddess-ness round here.

This is one such welcoming dish, whipped up in the middle of a cleaning frenzy the night before lovely Ruth came to stay for a couple of nights.  She is gluten free, and so I knew that I had a responsibility not only to spruce up the guest room, but also to make something we could all enjoy.  This is a really lovely cake; the ricotta gives it a creamy tanginess, and serves as the perfect canvas for the sharp, sweet lemon syrup.  This gets better after a day or two, so perfect for making the night before the visitors come, and is sturdy enough to freeze well and to cart about in a lunch box.  

You can even serve it up for breakfast the next day, making you a pretty perfect host all round.  Skirting boards notwithstanding.

Lemon & Ricotta Cake (Gluten Free)

225g butter, softened
225g plus 125g caster sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon natural yoghurt
250g ricotta cheese
150g ground almonds
100g polenta
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 lemon, juice and zest
2 lemons, juice only
100ml water
Blueberries for decoration

Preheat your oven to 170C.  Grease the sides, and grease and  line the bottom, of a 23cm loose-bottomed cake tin.

In a large bowl or using a stand mixer, cream the butter and 225g sugar together until they are light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, yoghurt, ricotta, almonds, polenta and baking soda until smooth and everything is combined.

Pour into the tin and bake for 1 - 1.5 hours.  Keep an eye on the top; if it looks like it is browning too much before the cake is fully cooked, cover it with greaseproof paper.  The cake is done when a skewer inserted into it comes out clean with no crumbs.

While the cake is cooking, make the syrup by combining the water, remaining sugar, and lemon juice in a small pan.  Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the texture has turned syrupy.  Remove from the heat, then stir in the zest.

When the cake is cooked, leave it in the tin and pour over three quarters of the syrup.  Leave to cool completely before removing it gently from the tin.  Scatter blueberries over the top, then drizzle with the remaining syrup.

Serve with yoghurt.

Yields 8-10 slices.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Feel The Fear & Do It Anyway - Puff Pastry

I was having a conversation at the weekend about "fake it till you make it". I recently took advice about being assertive from friends whose confidence I admire.  Some of the best advice I was given was to just pretend I was confident when dealing with a particular situation, and the actual confidence would follow hot on its heels.  Now, in real life I don't think I have enough experience of assertiveness, in true people-pleaser style, but the one place I know for sure this works is the kitchen.  Oh yeah, I'll show my utensils who's the boss of them. So, just proving that I do listen to advice, I made puff pastry.

You've all heard them - all the chefs who say don't bother making your own; the frozen stuff is just as good, and I'd nod along in agreement because, well, that's easy isn't it? But I needed to assert myself over SOMETHING, just to prove to myself I could, and so the puff pastry got it. I used Leith's recipe - I figured a cook book from a cooking school wouldn't steer me wrong, and I was right. And here's the thing. It was surprisingly easy. Yes, you heard me - puff pastry was easy. Sure, it took a lot of time, and I don't think I would have been able to pull it off during one of my hungover cooking sessions, but give me a lazy Sunday, no place else to be, and I really enjoyed it. It takes a lot more water than a regular pastry, but this results in a beautifully smooth, soft dough that is a genuine pleasure to work with. And it worked!  The darn thing actually worked.  Once it was done - because I am still not capable of making a decision and sticking to it - I turned it into a hybrid of millefeuille and tarte tatin.

Right, I'm off to take my newfound confidence elsewhere.  I've nothing to fear but fear itself, and other platitudes.  If only platitudes tasted as good as puff pastry.

Caramel Apple Millefeuille

For the puff pastry:
225g plain flour
pinch salt
30g plus 140g unsalted butter
120-150ml iced water

Sift the flour and salt together into a large, roomy bowl.  Rub in the 30g butter, and add enough water to turn it into a soft dough, using only a knife at this stage to bring it together.  On a floured surface, knead briefly until just combined.  Put in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Flour the surface again and roll the dough into a rectangle that measures about 30 x 10cm.  I have a useful silicone pastry mat that helpfully has measurements up the side, but you would be able to guesstimate it with no damaging outcome.

Take your floured rolling pin, and gently tap the butter into a flat rectangle about 8 x 8cm (it should be narrower than your pastry).

Put the butter on the pastry and fold both ends over to fully enclose it, starting with the third closest to you, then bring the far end over that.  Press the sides together to keep the butter in.  Turn it 90 degrees anti clockwise, so the folded edge is on the left.

Roll it out, lightly and working as quickly as you can without ruining your work, until it is 30 x 10cm again.  Fold it in three again, starting with folding the edge closest to you up,

then bringing the top edge down and over.

Give it a 90 degree turn again and repeat the process.  Now the pastry has had two turns, and it needs to rest, as no doubt do you.  Put it in its bag in the fridge for 30 minutes or so, before repeating this whole process at least twice more, until you can see no more streaks of butter.

To bake it, heat your oven to 220C.  Roll the pastry out one final time until it measures about 20 x 30cm.  Put it on a baking sheet, and prick it all over with a fork.   Bake for 20 minutes, until risen and golden.

When it has cooled, cut it into three even pieces.

For the Caramel Apple Millefeuille:

1 apple
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
0.5 teaspoon cinnamon (I have a hunch that rosemary could be used to good effect here instead of the cinnamon)
200ml cream
1 tablespoon brandy
Icing sugar

Cut the apple into wedges.  Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, and melt the butter.  Gently fry the apple wedges for a few minutes, then sprinkle over the brown sugar, cooking for another few minutes and turning once or twice until the sugar caramelises.  Remove the apple from the pan and leave to cool.

Whip the cream and the brandy together until firm enough to hold its shape.

To assemble, take one of your puff pastry sheets, spread it with half the cream and a third of the apple slices.

 Repeat with the next sheet of puff pastry.  Top with your final piece of pastry, and decorate with the last of the apple slices and dust over some icing sugar.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Suggestibly Yours - Baked Greek Lamb & Orzo Stew

As I'm sure my nearest and dearest, and especially Andy, would tell you, I am incredibly suggestible. Dangerously, flittingly, skittishly so.  And not just about the little things, like which dress to buy or what colour to paint my nails - although definitely about those things too - but sometimes, often, other stuff too.  I'm genuinely embarrassed about just how many of the big decisions in my life have come about because somebody just happens to mention something casually in passing.  I'm not complaining, you understand - my life would be much worse if a friend hadn't spoken to me on the phone one day late in 2005 and mentioned "you should think about going backpacking" - but, at the other end of the scale, my whole misguided attempt at a corporate life started at the moment someone said to me while I was at university "I think you'd be good in Human Resources".  I don't know if it makes a difference that I like and respect the first person; I neither liked nor respected the second, and I suspect it says more about me that I listened to both of them, but the fact of the matter is, other people have affected my life path more than they will ever realise, or I will ever acknowledge.

And obviously, obviously, the same goes for food, too.  Whether that suggestion comes from a non-connected place (when I read A Fine Balance a few months back I cooked my way through the India of my memory as I sobbed my way through that book), or something more tangible like a new cookbook (see my recent obsession with Jerusalem as an example), it's to my cookbooks and to my kitchen I will head, until circumstances and funds let Andy and I head off for more adventures.  So when somebody mentioned to me that there was a Greek Food Festival in Wellington this weekend, there was two places I was heading.  One was to the festival on Hania Street to stuff myself full of Bifteka and Dolmades, the other was to my bookcase.

I've cooked this before, but using a larger leg of lamb which falls apart as it slowly bakes in the tomatoes and gentle spices, reminiscent of so many sunny days.  This time, though, cooking for just the two of us, I used lamb chops, slow cooking them still, and then breaking them up through the pasta at the end.  The orzo is beautifully silky, and makes a real point of difference from rice.  Served with sharp, salty feta crumbled over, this is Mediterranean comfort food and might, just might, stave off the old backpacker's itchy feet for a while.

Baked Greek Lamb & Orzo Stew
Adapted from Tessa Kiros, Food From Many Greek Kitchens

4 large lamb chops

1 lemon
4 tablespoons olive oil
0.5 teaspoon paprika
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 spring onions, roughly chopped
1 tin crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cinnamon stick
Salt and pepper
200g orzo
Feta, to serve.

Preheat your oven to 180C.  Squeeze the juice from the lemon, half the oil, paprika and garlic over the lamb and rub it in well, making sure it's all covered.

In a large, ovenproof pan, pour in rest of the oil, followedd by the lamb.  Add the spring onions, tomatoes, oregano and cinnamon, and sprinkle over some salt.  Put in the oven for 30 minutes.

Add 250ml of hot water (if you had any lamb stock, that would be a good substitution) and cook for an hour.

While this is cooking, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to the packet instructions until it is al dente.  Drain well.

When the hour is up on the lamb, stir the pasta through the sauce with 375ml hot water.  Return to the oven for another 10 minutes, until the pasta is completely reheated and has absorbed most of the sauce.  Using a fork, remove any bones that were in the chops, and gently shred the meat into large chunks.

Serve, with ground pepper and crumbled feta over the top.

Serves 4