Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Back down to Earth

When you get a new mixer, you have to use it – and use it quickly. The kMix was calling to me. And if an excuse was actually required, then our office tradition of birthday boys and girls providing cakes for everyone offered me the prefect one.

I had spent some time browsing books, wondering what to make, when I alighted on chocolate cupcakes in Nigella’s Domestic Goddess.

There is something about cupcakes that makes you expect sugary sweetness, that suggests cakes for children. But this recipe provides a satisfyingly bitter chocolate hit – very much a concoction for grown-ups.

The mixer makes life so much easier: creaming sugar and butter together, compared with the old-fashioned bicep-building slog, is a dream. It’s tempting to caress the beautiful machine as it hums away, fluttering your eyelashes at it flirtatiously, à la Nigella herself.

But setting aside such frivolity – it’s just a machine, woman: it doesn’t even vibrate as fetchingly as the washing machine – it makes light work of baking.

Once the brown sugar and unsalted butter are creamed (125g of each), you add two large eggs and beat that all in, before adding 125g of self-raising flour, plus a tablespoon each of cocoa and espresso powder. Then add 50g of melted dark chocolate.

Pre-heat your oven to 200g. Share out the mix into a muffin tray, lined with a dozen cupcake cases, and bake for 15-20 minutes (my notoriously awkward oven required 25).

Leave in the tin for a couple of minutes and then move to a cooling rack. When they’re fully cool, top with a simple chocolate ‘icing’ of 300g dark chocolate, 50g unsalted butter and two teaspoons of espresso powder, melted gently in a bain marie.

I would say that, sticking religiously to Ms Lawson’s measurements, there’s no way you can ‘pour’ the cake mix into the tray. It’s more a matter of plopping the mix in, a spoonful at a time. But that’s a minor complaint. And I didn't do as she suggested and "lop" the top off each little cake to make a flatter surface for the icing – there's no need (and it's wasteful).

The result was very grown-up cakes, with a light sponge and a very adult topping.

I baked two batches, in the full and certain knowledge that the office gannets would descend gleefully. I was not disappointed.

By Monday evening, it was very much a case of getting back down to Earth after the culinary pleasures of the weekend.

I’d picked up smoked haddock from Vicki on Saturday morning and poached it in a mix of water and milk, before letting it cool and then gently flaking the curving, milk-white flesh onto a plate.

I wonder if there’s anything much more soothing than smoked haddock? It has to be properly smoked, though: the stuff that’s dyed a deep colour is pretty much offensive. The only colour should be a slight blush of pinky brown, while the smoky flavour should be subtle and not overwhelming.

On to the risotto itself. Now, I make no pretence at my take being as good as the divine one that I ate at Brasserie Blanc in Bristol last month, but I decided to tweak and play a little this time, and by and large, I think it paid off.

I started by softening a chopped small onion in olive oil as usual, then added some shredded leek and some celery salt, and cooked it a little longer.

The Arborio rice went in and took on the oil, followed by a slug of Vermouth that fizzed away as it hit the pan. Once that was absorbed, it was the turn of the chicken stock that I’d been heating. A ladle of that and then, when that was absorbed, a ladle of the milky poaching liquor, and so on.

I added fresh thyme and, as the cooking neared its conclusion, green peppercorns. On the side, I was sautéing more shredded leeks.

With the rice having absorbed its maximum level of liquid, the flaked fish was added, a lid went on, the heat was turned down and it was left for around 10 minutes. No, that's not what you read in recipe books, but it's the only way I can get the rice to the sort of texture that I've had when I've eaten risotto in a restaurant.

Since The Other Half doesn’t like cheese, I don’t add Parmesan, but finish my risottos with some crème fraiche instead.

In terms of serving, the risotto is topped with the leek.

I liked most of this: there was a depth of subtle flavour to the risotto itself that was very pleasing, although I’d perhaps let it get a tad too sloppy. I was less pleased with the leek topping. I probably need to use less leek and fry it so that it adds a really crispy contrast. I shall have to look into this.

Earlier, I said that it was essentially a case of getting back “down to Earth” after the sophisticated pleasures of Bistrot Bruno Loubet on Saturday.

But while such dining is not an everyday experience, it’s interesting to see how it can inspire and influence. It may not sound like much, but perhaps my ideas of expanding on my usual basic risotto by using some fish-infused milk, adding green peppercorns and leek with the onion at the start was a response to such an experience and a desire to push my cooking a little further.

Whether it all works is, of course, an entirely different matter. But then again, not only is living learning, you learn by your mistakes.

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