Monday, 21 February 2011

Gingerbread - the perfect winter cake

I have a big admission to make, Im absolutely terrified of cup measurements. For years now I have had monthly subscriptions to US food magazines without ever making one recipe in any of them, all because of the cups! I was brought up to believe that baking was an exact science, one where everything was very carefully measured in ounces and then later grams. Cups, as a result dont make any sense to me and scare me senseless.

the prettiest cake you have ever seen?
On a recent trip to the US I bought the most fabulous Bundt cake tin and spent a week looking for the perfect cake to grace it on its maiden oven voyage. The American Bundt cake comes from the German Bundkuchen and Austrian Gugelhupf which looks fantastic but has always surprised me by its dryness. I decided that I was going to have to brave a US recipe for my new US cake tin and the first place I looked was the fabulous archives at SmittenKitchen.

This cake certainly hit the spot as a great winterly cake. Two days later its even better so as the cake has ripened and become even more sticky and chewy. Its the kind of cake that cries for a cup of strong coffee after a brisk walk in the cold, the kind of cake that will warm you all the way through with its fantastic spiciness. This is definitely not a cake for wimps, but saying that its definitely not difficult to make.

Grammercy Tavern's Gingerbread (from SmittenKitchen adapted to metric by me)
makes one bundt size tin or two loafs.

8 fl oz/220 ml Guinness
8 fl oz/220 ml Treacle (molasses on the original recipe but I couldnt find this)
1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

250g plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cardamom (I couldnt find this - it worked perfectly without)

3 large eggs
190g dark brown sugar
220g granulated sugar
6fl oz/150ml vegetable oil
Icing sugar for dusting

Ive grouped the ingredients into the dishes you will need - which are as follows:
- One large saucepan
- Two big mixing bowls

treacle, fabulous sticky ingredient that my uncle feeds to cows when milking them
First measure your guinness and treacle and heat until boiling in your large saucepan. Remove from the heat and whisk in the bicarbonate of soda (the mixture will double in size and become quite fluffy). Leave this to cool to room temperature and then prepare everything else.
volume doubles in size when you add bicarb!
Butter the tin and dust with flour and set aside

Heat the oven to 180C/170 (fan)

Sift the flour, spices and baking powder in one large bowl

Weigh and mix the sugars in another bowl. Once your treacle mixture has cooled whisk the eggs into the sugar and then add the oil, whisking until smooth (I used a handmixer for this). Add the treacle mixture and whisk again.

Combine the flour mixture with the liquid mixture and mix until well combined.

Add caption
Pour the mixture into the Bundt pan (or small loaf tins) and give them a good knock on the counter to remove air bubbles.
the bottom does not need to look pretty!
Bake in the middle of the oven for 50 minutes, a tester should come out with just a few crumbs attached. Cool in the tin for 5 minutes and then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. This should last a good few days covered (assuming you dont eat it all very quickly!)

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Gung hei faat coi - Happy New Year of the rabbit

Chinese New Year isn't a food filled occasion that I had celebrated until I was recently invited by friends to Victoria Asian Cuisine in Monkstown, Dublin for a New Years feast. I happily went off to wikipedia to research about all the New Years traditions to make sure that I wouldnt do anything disastrously wrong. There was only one tradition that stuck, which I now strangely cant find anywhere on Wikipedia. This was that under no circumstances should you wear black. Unfortunately when I turned up in an array of reds and golds I found out that Wikipedia was lying, much like the time it told me that mince pies came from Holland.

So there I was in my red, for my New Years feast. Victoria run a New Years feast every year, where you can book tables of 8 or more for a very reasonable (€32 a head) for ten courses of food destined to bring you prosperity in the Chinese New Year. During the night there were prize draws in aid of charity, where most tables seemed to win a few bottles of booze and right at the end of the night the Karaoke machine was opened up for those few Asian guests in the room with singing voices, and those many Irish with no singing voices but fantastic belief in themselves.

salad for luck in eating the rest of the feast 
First out was a smoked salmon salad. A load of small bowls were brought to the table containing things like smoked salmon, sesame seeds, carrots, coriander, something that looked a bit like cornflakes and ginger. We were told to take a bowl and empty it into the big bowl. Then the waiter came around with 2 little envelopes, one which smelled a bit like Chinese 5 spice and the other that smelled oddly like nothing but was possibly MSG. We were then instructed to all dig our chopsticks in to mix the salad. I could have eaten this salad all day (which is what leads me to believe MSG might have been an ingredient), it was everything in one - sweet, sour, crunchy, soft and fantastically fresh. 

Next to arrive out was an "Imperial Treasure Platter" of assorted deep fried goodies, tempura prawns, crab claws, chicken satay skewers all guarded by a little orange salt Confucius. Deep breath, only 8 more courses to go!

After this, some giant prawns and then the crispiest roast chicken I have ever eaten (for prosperity said the menu). A scary looking sea bass came next looking slightly like it had been shot and its entrails placed lovingly on the plate surrounded by decorations of orange slices. It was beautifully cooked, and lovely and light after the previous few courses. 

Next out some lovely roast duck followed by another Confucius minding some lamb chops. These menu items listed the following as their benefits "inspires good team spirit and raises hope for a profitable year" followed by "to bring about wealth and riches". These guys should open a restaurant outside the gates of our government offices, I suspect they could change the country around.

After this came dishes of Chinese vegetables, rice and noodles. Rice and noodles apparently are always left to the end for the anyone that might still be hungry, it being important to stuff your guests with the good stuff first. All novice buffet diners should bear this in mind! 

Finally to top it all off a big plate of fruit, including a number of which were meant to look like rabbits. Don't recognise them from the photo above, see below. 

I had figured that it might be bad luck to eat rabbit on New Year in the year of the rabbit, but it appears that rabbit shaped orange was absolutely fine.

I cant recommend going for a Chinese New Year feast enough, its a great chance to have a massive feast of different foods that you might normally not eat all with the goal of bringing luck to the next 12 months. If you're willing, Victoria is also a great spot for Karaoke but I didn't hang around long enough to find out.

Since then Ive been reliably informed that red and gold are the customary colours for brides, something that none of those dressed in black at the table (for bad luck) knew about either. The year of the rabbit is, or so I'm told, one of the luckiest Chinese years and probably one where you should avoid trusting Wikipedia too much as a main source of information

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Olive Festival - Liguria, November 2010

In November last year I took a trip to Italy and the only excuse I can give for not posting about it before is the overwhelming desire to lick the computer every time I have tried. This was without a doubt the most fantastic food holiday Ive had and was all organised through a friend of mine, whose Dad has an apartment in a small medieval village in the hills of Liguria. My friend John now has a lifetime of soup and bread coming to him!

Through Johns Dad we managed to get an invite to the fantastic Olive Festival in Colletta di Castelbianco. This is the kind of festival that you only get invited to by locals and the people that have somehow managed to find out about this lovely little village in the hills of Liguria. Its certainly not every weekend that you can go to Italy to pick olives and then see them being pressed into olive oil. Then again as you will see below, the amount of olive picking I did was fairly dismal after a 13 course dinner the night before!

Liguria isn't terribly difficult to get to from Dublin, only a short hop to Nice by plane and then little more than an hour and a half by car to the lovely seaside town of Albenga and suddenly you find yourself in a land where food takes on a whole other meaning. Coletta di Castelbianco is a beautifully restored medieval village, renovated into a higgeldypiggeldy warren of beautiful apartments. The majority of the apartments are owned/rented as holiday homes by people living in other parts of Europe, most of whom have been coming to Italy for years and years and are treated as locals.

not enough for a bottle of oil
Over the course of 3 nights I must have eaten about 30 different courses, of which two of the dinners were in restaurants nearing their 100th birthdays with rich traditions and recipes passed down through generations. Homemade ravioli, gnocchi, tiramisu. I left feeling like a fatted goose.

gnocchi to die for
The first night we had a 13 course dinner, with no idea from one course to the next what might arrive. Arriving in Liguria during truffle season definitely has its benefits, then again I suspect that its very hard to get a bad meal in this part of Italy.

wild boar

I love the way they did the tasting menu on the first night. No pretentiousness of balanced bits and pieces of veg cut into precise circles and flowers, in this fabulous restaurant we were first brought a round of clean plates and then the waiter would return with a large serving dish and serve us each a large spoon of whatever was on the plate.

Everything we ate was locally sourced and in season, something so difficult in colder climates like ours. There is something really special about knowing that the wild boar you are having for dinner probably traveled a shorter distance to the restaurant than the mile you just walked to work up your appetite (I spent a good part of the weekend expecting to see one jump out at me!)

should need no introduction
The restaurant had an beautiful wine cellar, with some fabulous old Barolo's. Amazing food with a feed of amazing local wines. Ive already started saving for an apartment in Italy!

Scola, the restaurant we dined in the following night was also excellent, again with an emphasis on fresh truffles as they were in season. Having a love for mushrooms I happily gobbled them all up, mostly without snapping any decent photos at all unfortunately. I hear that once a year this same restaurant holds a ten course mushroom feast once a year which I'm hoping to get back to at some point. The highpoint of this meal was when the waiter accidentally left a bottle of 35 year old balsamic vinegar. I now have a similar bottle in my kitchen which is the most amazing ingredient Ive ever laid my hands on.

Had I not had so much wine the night before I would have seen how nets were laid out below each tree as the trees were then beaten to shake the olives out of the tree. On going to Italy I thought we were probably late in the season for olives, but as it turns out that November was early for olive picking. The reason they were picking so early this year was because the wind had blown them off the trees in previous years when they had been left until after Christmas. 

After some strenuous olive picking by all the locals (see sum total of my olives above), off we went to the neighbouring press where a long lunch was awaiting us. This lovely grandmother was the head chef with half her family helping out, her husband the master of ceremonies for the olive crushing. This was the point that I wished I could speak Italian fluently enough to get a job as assistant in the kitchen. I can only imagine the lovely recipes that this granny has passed down to children and grandchildren, the kind of recipes that us non Italians have no chance of ever cooking.

This (above) was the first of it the oil to be pressed. The olives were taken, washed and then passed under massive mill stones. Once crushed to a paste it went through a very noisy process of centrifugation to remove the water from the oil before removing all of the bits of olive and stone that were left over. The leftovers are then used as fuel apparently. The whole process took about half an hour before the oil was bottled for us to bring home.
the first bottle
My few bottles that came home with me are very much prized possessions. It was also beautiful to see all the locals take part in the process to collect the olives and then join together to cook and eat at the olive press. I definitely will heading back there, Im just wondering how much bribery baking it will take.