Saturday, December 31, 2011

Almost another disaster

While down in Timaru for Christmas, I took the opportunity to pillage Mum and Dad's blackcurrant bushes, so I could make some blackcurrant jam (p225). Christmas is really a few weeks too early for blackcurrants, so there weren't a lot ripe yet. Even so, we managed to glean about 350g that were ripe or near enough. The recipe is actually for 1kg of currants, but a one-third recipe would make plenty enough for me.

On returning to Christchurch, I spent every spare moment of the following days in the garden or attempting to reduce the mountain of unpacked boxes cluttering up my garage. It was a few days before I realised I had a container of blackcurrants - now starting to look a bit wrinkly - sitting in my kitchen.

So when I got home from work yesterday afternoon, I went straight into the kitchen and made a start on the jam, picking through the blackcurrants, removing any stalks and the odd one that had started to go mouldy. These went into a large pot with some water, and boiled it gently for a few minutes. Once the fruit was soft, I stirred in sugar and brought the jam to the boil.

Blackcurrants are high in pectin and acid, so I knew I wouldn't have any trouble getting this jam to set; I just had to boil it for 15 minutes. Setting a timer, I busied myself by drifting around the kitchen with a screwdriver, replacing the old mismatched handles on my kitchen cupboards with new ones - and keeping one eye on the jam pot, which was boiling away merrily without any interference from me.

Towards the end of the boiling time, I took out the jars that had been sterilising in the oven (after I'd dug them  out of one of the ubiquitous garage boxes) and had a look at the jam. 

As I stirred the jam with a wooden spoon, I realised with a sinking feeling that there was a layer of blackcurrants burnt onto the bottom of the pot. Not again! I stopped stirring, took the pot off the heat and immediately poured the jam into jars.

There was only enough jam for two jars; in fact, neither of these ended up being full, either. A layer of froth at the top of each jar subsided as the jam cooled, leaving a large gap at the top of both jars. Meanwhile, at least half of those carefully-picked blackcurrants were scorched onto the bottom of my pot.

I left the jam overnight, crossing my fingers that I'd got to it early enough that the burnt taste had not permeated the entire pot of jam - like the horrid tamarillo jam I made a few months back.

Well, I've just had a couple of English muffins with blackcurrant jam, and I'm happy to say that it's perfectly edible. As predicted, it's set very firmly, and I can't taste any burnt flavour in it. Phew! Now I just have to get that pot clean...

Blackcurrant jam has never been a favourite of mine; it's quite tart (despite all the sugar) and the texture tends to be a bit lumpy. However, it's less sickly-sweet than some, and it's very easy to make - just pay attention and don't let it burn!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Scones just aren't festive enough

I'm sure everyone's heard by now about the latest events in Christchurch - not what anyone needed just before Christmas - or ever again really. My new home, being on the less-affected western side of town, was completely unscathed, and I have spent my time since Friday's quakes feeling oddly guilty at being entirely unaffected by an event which has meant disaster for so many in the same city.

As you know, it's somehow become my tradition to make a batch of scones just after a quake. I did consider throwing together a batch so as not to disappoint your expectations, but really, I had a pavlova (p204) to make, which was going to tie up my oven all evening.

Pavlova is one of those recipes people tend to be a bit afraid of. I've never had a problem producing an edible pav, but I've always used the same recipe - which isn't the Edmonds one. So I was keen to see how I would do with a different recipe.

A pavlova is just a giant meringue, really, so it's much the same process. You begin by beating egg whites until stiff, then (this is the first time I've come across this bit) add 3 tablespoons of water, and beat again, before slowly adding caster sugar to make a nice glossy meringue mixture.

Finally, you stir through vinegar, (oddly, the recipe doesn't state what kind, but I used malt because that's what my usual recipe has) vanilla and cornflour. Then all that's left to do is spoon it all out onto a tray lined with baking paper, marked with a circle about the size you want your pav.

And that's pretty much it. Bung it in the oven at 150 for 45 minutes, then when the timer goes off, turn off the oven and leave the pav in there until the oven has cooled down, like overnight if possible. And don't get curious and open the door - just leave it.

Mine held a pretty good shape while it was still baking, but collapsed a bit as the oven cooled down. I'm sure that some people would say that a successful pav is supposed to stay up and not collapse. But I say, rubbish - - it tastes the same whether it's collapsed or not.

There was considerable further collapsing as I eased the pavlova off the baking paper and onto a cake plate, then Gladwrapped it for the trip to Timaru.

My pav was in fact a fairly sorry sight by the time I got it to Timmers, but the great thing about pav is that you pile stuff on top of it, covering up all the broken bits. Kiwifruit is the traditional topping for pav, but in recent years I've subscribed to the 'pile it up with lots of berries' method. Berries may be astonishingly expensive in Christmas week, but they look and taste fantastic.

Since Mum already had the desserts for Christmas Day under control, we had my pavlova on Christmas Eve. And it was exactly what I expect from a pav: crunchy on the outside, with a soft, sweet marshmellowy centre. Top that with cream and berries and you've got a winner.

I've just had the last of the pav as a decadent Christmas Day breakfast. And Mum's sorted the rest of our meals for the day, so that's me for Edmonds stuff this Christmas. Hope you are all having a happy, safe and earthquake-free day. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tiny is tastier

I had one last item to make on my Christmas baking list, before piling up trays with Christmas goodies to take to work. I'd acquired some appropriate adhesive and glued the clips of my oven seal in place, and though it had had only a few short hours to dry, I was hoping it'd hold long enough to make some neenish tarts (p84).

Before starting on the tarts, I used the half-can of condensed milk not needed for the tarts to whip up some lolly cake, one recipe that is strangely absent from the Edmonds book. I've wondered why such a simple and popular Kiwi recipe would be omitted, and have decided it must be because it uses products (Eskimos and malt biscuits) that are not affiliated with the Edmonds brand.

Anyway, it only took a few minutes to throw together a lolly cake, giving me something to fall back on and pad out the goodie trays if the tarts didn't work. This done, I started on the tarts, creaming butter and sugar, beating in egg and mixing in dry ingredients to make the pastry. After 15 minutes' chilling time, I rolled out the pastry and cut out rounds to line mini muffin tins, pricking the bottoms to stop them from rising too much.

Neenish tarts are generally made in patty tins, but I chose to make mine smaller. I've mentioned before that I prefer to make things bite-sized - especially at Christmas - and neenish tarts are the perfect example of something that tastes good at the first bite, but becomes overpoweringly sickly before you manage to finish it all. By turning it into a one-bite item, you only experience the pleasant part. After all, you can always have a second one if you want more!

I hadn't rolled the pastry quite as thin as I intended, and some of the pastry cases I turned out were overly puffed up. In later trays I amended this somewhat, but I mostly ended up with tart cases that didn't have all that much space for the filling.

When all the tart cases were baked and cooling on racks, I mixed up the filling. It's a mixture of softened butter, condensed milk, icing sugar and lemon juice. My butter wasn't really soft enough, and I had to beat it quite thoroughly to get all the lumps out, but eventually I had a nice smooth filling.

The tart cases did not take long to cool, and I began spooning filling into them as soon as it was ready. A few short minutes later, and I had a tray of filled tarts chilling in the fridge.

I left them chilling while I arranged almond biscuits, lolly cake, apricot balls, chocolate truffles, slices of cathedral loaf and florentines (cut into shards to make them easier to fit on the trays) on my goodie trays, leaving space for some neenish tarts on each. I'd tried to avoid going overboard with my baking this year, but as always, I had more than enough.

The neenish tarts were not quite set as I took them out to ice them, but I was short on time, so I went ahead with the icing anyway. Neenish tarts are easily recognised by the half-white, half-chocolate icing. I've always thought it looks like a nuisance to do the icing like that, but actually I found it wasn't that difficult.

I mixed up a bowl of white icing (p77), and went right through my tray of tarts, icing one half only. It wasn't difficult, but quite time-consuming: it took quite a while to get right through the tray - and then I had to start on the chocolate!

I'd decided to use melted chocolate instead of chocolate icing, partly because I had heaps of cooking chocolate left over from the florentines, but also because I thought it would be less sickly than actual icing. I melted the chocolate and went through the tray of tarts again, icing the other side of each. It was getting late and I was getting impatient, so the icing was a bit messily done in places, but at a glance, they looked pretty good.

I added my completed tarts to the trays, which I dispersed around the various sites at work the following day. I think the most popular item was the lolly cake - the one non-Edmonds item on the trays - but the rest was well received too.

I've never liked neenish tarts much; I've always found them sickly and unappealing. Not everyone shares this opinion: I was surprised at how many people were pleased to see them on the trays. It was also a surprise how tasty my mini versions were - a burst of sweet creamy filling in a shortbready case. You might prefer the traditional size, but for me, the little ones were just the right size.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Flimsy frilly things

I was relaxing comfortably on the couch on Sunday afternoon, trying to motivate myself to get up and do something productive. "One more recipe," I told myself, "how much effort can that be?". Well, considering the recipe I chose was florentines (p39), quite a lot of effort, actually!

Maybe you don't recognise the name 'florentine'. You know those things you see in bakeries sometimes, that have a very thin kind of toffeeish biscuit with fruit and nuts in it on one side, and chocolate on the other? That's a florentine: that's what I talked myself into making on the Sunday afternoon of the weekend before Christmas, when I was already worn out from being in the kitchen all weekend.

What a great idea.

The recipe didn't look too daunting at a glance - just cream butter and sugar, beat in syrup, then add flour, almonds, glace cherries, walnuts and mixed peel. That bit took mere minutes. It's the cooking that took forever - you can only make four at a time (though by the end of it, I was squeezing five or even six to a tray, just to get it done), each biscuit being a tablespoonful of the mixture, squashed flat, and cooked for 10 minutes.

Well, I cooked my first tray for 12 minutes, and they came out scorched far beyond edibility. On the second tray I reduced the cooking time, but they were only marginally better. On the third tray, I realised that I was supposed to be lining my trays with baking paper, a process which helped reduce scorching and also limited the spreading of the biscuits.

I finally settled on a cooking time of five minutes. My new but totally ineffective oven seal had now broken on both sides, and for such a short time, I wasn't bothering with trying to poke it into place, so plenty of heat was probably leaking out during the cooking process. The trays I made towards the end of the baking seemed a bit underdone, which may be the result of the oven losing heat due to aforementioned seal issues and the frequent opening of doors.

If you're mad enough to decide to make florentines after reading this, you'll have to experiment with the first few trays and find the ideal cooking time for your own oven. Take my advice and don't start with the recommended ten minutes.

Eventually, I settled into a system of rotating trays; one in the oven at all times, one cooling after just coming out of the oven, and one in preparation for going in. Once I'd seen how much the first few spread, I made sure I squashed down the spoonfuls of mixture and spread out the fruit and nuts - it didn't matter if the bits weren't joined up when they first went into the oven, they soon would be once the biscuity mixture started spreading.

Plenty of the florentines shattered or were either over or undercooked; I lost count of the casualties, piled higgledy-piggeldy on a nearby tray. It was well into the evening when I took the final tray out of the oven and took stock of the successful florentines.

I had sticky stuff all over the kitchen and surrounding areas; the kitchen was covered with dishes and trays of cooked florentines; and I still wasn't done yet. I was tempted to call it a night, but I decided it was best to get the job done. I took a deep breath and started melting some chocolate.

I'd been dreading the bit where I had to try and ice these flimsy shards of brittle biscuit. I was sure hardly any would survive the process. To my surprise, however, it wasn't actually that difficult. I'd hold a florentine in one hand while I scooped chocolate onto the flat surface and spread it around. Just as the chocolate started to ooze through and burn my hand, I'd spin around and deposit the now-iced florentine, chocolate-down, on a sheet of baking paper.

No, they did not all survive this process. But a surprising number did. At the end of a very long evening, I had a bench covered in completed florentines. They were all shapes and sizes, and did not actually look that impressive. They were finished, though, and that's all I cared about. I packed them carefully between layers of baking paper, turned my back on the dishes, and went to bed.

Florentines taste quite nice, I suppose. When you have a combination of chocolate, fruit, nuts, and a biscuit that's more like a thin layer of toffee than anything else, it's not surprising that it's nice to eat. The thing is, it's really not worth the effort. If you want a florentine, go to a bakery and buy one.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Build your own cathedral

On Sunday morning, I dragged myself into the kitchen and turned to my next Christmas recipe: cathedral loaf (p57). It's one of those cakes that are so chocka with fruit and nuts that there's only a bare minimum of cake holding it all together.

I'd had to substitute some of the ingredients - dried apple bites for glacé pears, for example, and plain dried fruit instead of the glacé listed for pineapple and apricots. These I chopped into smaller pieces and set aside in a bowl along with glacé cherries, crystallised ginger, almonds and brazil nuts.

In a separate bowl, I beat eggs, sugar, vanilla essence and brandy, then added sifted flour, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Though I'd double-sifted the dry ingredients, my attempt to fold them into the egg mixture had a very lumpy result until I gave up trying to fold and just mixed it normally instead.

I poured my now reasonably smooth mixture into the bowl of fruit and nuts, and stirred it through. In a normal cake, the fruit and nuts would become part of the overall mixture; in this one, the cake mix merely coated the main ingredients.

I lined a loaf tin with two layers of brown paper and one of baking paper, and spooned the cathedral loaf mixture in. It filled the loaf tin up to the top, but I didn't expect it to rise much. I plonked the loaf in the oven at 150, set the timer for two hours, gently poked the loose side of the oven seal back into place, and left the loaf to its own devices until the timer went off.

The cathedral loaf was looking pretty good as it came out of the oven. A little brown on top, but not too bad. It had to cool completely in the tin, so I left it on the bench for some hours before deciding it was cool, taking it out and wrapping it in tinfoil.

The instructions are to leave the loaf for two days before cutting - two days that are now up. I cut into the loaf a short while ago, using a sharp knife and attempting to cut nice thin slices as directed in the recipe. My thin slices didn't go too well, they went a bit crumbly (not inappropriately, for a cathedral loaf made in Chch in 2011) so I tried doing them a bit thicker, which worked better.

I'm quite impressed with the results of the cathedral loaf. With all that nutty, fruity goodness, it's delicious, and it looks lovely too, with the stained-glass window effect which is the obvious 'cathedral' reference. This is well worth making, as long as you bear in mind that the long list of ingredients adds up on your grocery bill too. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bring a plate

I had a casual Christmas gathering at a friend's place to go to on Saturday night. This was a "bring some food to share" situation: ideal for ticking off Edmonds recipes. So, having spent the whole of Saturday morning madly baking, I cleaned up the kitchen and raced across to Pak N Save to get ingredients for pasta salad (p178).

While I was at the supermarket, I noticed a bulk pack of chicken drums on special. I knew I still had one or two recipes suitable for drums, and figured I had enough time to cook the chicken and cool it down to be served cold at the dinner.

When I got home, I got some pasta on the boil for the salad, and sat down to find a chicken recipe. I had to rethink the one I had planned to use, because I didn't have all the ingredients. I did, however, have the ingredients for cheesy sesame-coated chicken (p135) - or so I thought.

I started to combine the ingredients for the chicken coating in a bag: flour, grated parmesan, chicken stock, sesame seeds, mixed herbs, and dry breadcrumbs... except I didn't have any dry breadcrumbs. Hmmm. I considered several options as substitutes, and was toying with using rolled oats or polenta when my eye strayed to the bowl of   leftover biscuit crumbs from the morning's apricot balls. Biscuit crumbs for breadcrumbs? Not an ideal substitute, but surely closer than my other ideas? Oh well, I didn't have any other use for the biscuit crumbs anyway. In they went.

I removed the skin from the chicken drums and coated them piece by piece in the parmesan mixture.  The recipe is for eight drums, but I still had plenty of the coating left when I'd done eight, so I coated all twelve drums from the pack of chicken I'd bought, cramming them into an oven dish and putting them on to bake for 20 minutes.

While the chicken was in the oven, I fisnished the salad. The cooked pasta had been cooling while I worked with the chicken, and was now ready to use. I added chopped spring onions, celery, green pepper and tomatoes, along with one of the optional extras - cooked, chopped bacon. I'd intended to make my own mayonnaise for this salad, but I was running short on time, so just used bought mayo and stirred it through.

The salad was done and chilling in the fridge by the time the chicken came out of the oven. It didn't look very exciting - kind of anemic and soggy. It seemed cooked, but since I didn't want to be responsible for an outbreak of food poisoning, I  put it back in for an additional five minutes' cooking time.

Five minutes later the chicken was looking a bit more presentable, if still a bit pale and boring. I tried one drum and found it cooked through and reasonably tasty. So far, so good: I placed all the drums in a clean oven dish and put them in the fridge to cool.

Cooking and cooling the chicken took longer than I thought, and the chicken wasn't entirely cold as I gathered together my offerings to take to Leah's. We put them straight in her fridge when I arrived, though, so I figured no harm done.

When it was time to eat, I was quite embarrassed to see my chicken sitting on the table. It had become shrivelled and even more unappealing during the hours in Leah's fridge. Amongst the far more appetising food on offer, it actually looked quite repulsive. Only myself and one other person took a piece; I don't know if she ate hers, but I only got through half of mine before deciding it was underdone and therefore unsafe. And frankly, not very tasty.

The pasta salad, on the other hand, looked colourful and fresh and was an ideal dish for a summer barbecue. I should have done the salad and left it at that! In the end, I took home almost all of the chicken and turned it into chicken casserole.

I can recommend the pasta salad - it's fresh and summery, but filling at the same time. Cheesy sesame-coated chicken, on the other hand, is nice enough hot, but the recommendation "serve hot or cold" shouldn't be trusted. Of course, if I'd used actual breadcrumbs instead of biscuit crumbs, the coating would almost certainly have been more successful. Looks like I should be adding this one to my ever-increasing list of possible 'do-overs'!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas catchup

After spending the past few weeks absorbed in the 'delights' of moving house, I found that Christmas has suddenly appeared on my doorstep - and I'm nowhere near ready for it! So this week I hurriedly finished off my gift shopping, and attempted to acquire a new seal for the oven door so I could get into my Christmas baking.

This turned out to be more of a mission than I thought, but after several days of trying, I found myself in possession of the desired seal. I brought it home, fitted it on the oven... and two hours later, it had broken in exactly the same way as the old one. Grr. I've got a plan in mind for fixing the thing, but meantime, all my baking is being done with one side of the oven seal hanging loose. Ah well.

By this time last year, I'd done huge amounts of baking - far more than I actually needed, as it turned out. This year, I intend to be a little less extravagant, but I'm still doing double-recipes for almost everything. I just hope I can get through all the recipes I'd earmarked for Christmas - time's running out fast!

Since I'd done the most obvious Christmas recipes last year, I had to think outside the box for some of this year's recipes. The first thing I made, for example, was almond biscuits (p34) - not obviously a Christmas recipe, but I do associate almond flavour with Christmas, So I figured it was Christmassy enough.

It's a straightforward biscuit recipe, really: cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs and almond essence, then add dry ingredients. Roll into balls, squish with a floured fork, and place a blanched almond atop each one. Actually, it's supposed to be half an almond, but whole ones is what I had, and I wasn't going to bother trying to halve them!

While the biscuits were in the oven, I made a couple of recipes that wouldn't need baking - apricot balls (p218) and chocolate truffles (p219). I had a lot of dried apricots to chop up, but the food processor made short work of those, and they were soon in a saucepan with some orange juice and citric acid. I brought this mixture to the boil, and let it simmer for 10 minutes. It's mostly just apricots, though, and at one point, I felt the mixture was in danger of scorching, so I added a bit more juice to keep it moist.

The apricots had to cool after this, so I put the saucepan aside while I made the chocolate truffles, melting cooking chocolate and butter over a low heat. The chocolate seemed to be taking a long time to melt, until I realised that when I took out the last tray of almond biscuits, I'd turned off the element I was using instead of the oven! Obviously, I'm not used to my new stove yet.

With the element back on, the chocolate melted very quickly. I added enough icing sugar to make the mixture thick enough to handle, before adding liqueur and cocoa. When I say "liqueur", it was supposed to be rum, but I never got around to getting any, so the truffles ended up with Cointreau in them instead.

The final addition was more icing sugar: enough to get the chocolate to a workable consistency. In retrospect, I don't think I put enough in - the mixture was very soft and didn't completely hold its shape once I'd rolled it into balls and coated them in coconut. Something to remember for next time.

I began with the tablespoon-sized truffles suggested in the recipe, but these seemed too large for such a rich truffle. I prefer to make things bite-sized for Christmas, since there's just so much to choose from, and rich-tasting nibbles can be hard to get through if they're too large. The other benefit of reducing the size is that you get more out of your mixture. My double recipe should have yielded about 30 at the recommended size; I wound up with 40.

Meanwhile, the apricot mixture had cooled enough to work with, so I spooned it back into the food processor and pureed it. To the apricot puree I added biscuit crumbs, coconut and icing sugar, making a mixture thick enough to shape into balls and roll in coconut or dip in chocolate. Chocolate would be really nice on these, but I chose coconut as quicker, easier and cheaper.

The bowl of apricot mixture was considerably more daunting than that of the chocolate truffles. I'd doubled both recipes, as neither seemed particularly large. As it happens, the apricot ball recipe seems to make quite a bit more than estimated. It took me a while to get through the whole bowl (I tried to keep them to approximately the same small size as the truffles, but impatience creeps in and the size increased a little as time went on) but I eventually had a tray of over 70 apricot balls.

So after spending the whole of Saturday morning in the kitchen, I'd completed the almond biscuits, chocolate truffles and apricot balls. The almond biscuits weren't particularly exciting - they're a fairly plain biscuit with a slight almond flavour - but I don't suppose anyone will complain.

The truffles are rich and chocolaty, though perhaps slightly too sweet from all that icing sugar. Rolling them in cocoa powder instead of coconut might add enough bitterness to cut through the sweetness a little. As for the apricot balls, they're quite interesting. I've always found that truffle-type recipes based on biscuit crumbs are a bit dry, but these are surprisingly moist and fruity. They taste pretty good with the coconut coating, but I think if you're willing to make the effort, chocolate-dipped would be nicer.

So that's three recipes ticked off my Christmas baking list - it's a good start, but there's plenty more to do yet!

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