Monday, 27 December 2010

Ideas from a pile of books

There's no doubt that it has been the most foodie-based festive season I’ve ever had.

First, my birthday produced the Kenwood iMix, plus Roberta Muir’s 500 Cheeses. And following hot on the heels of those came Escoffier: The King of Chefs by Kenneth James, together with the great man’s Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery and Joël’s Complete Robuchon, plus Elisabeth Luard’s European Peasant Cuisine.

That’s not forgetting The Stornaway Black Pudding Bible by Seumas MacInnes and Bob Dewar, plus one of those irresistible Amazon deals to netted me Eggs, Pastry and Sauces by Michel Roux for a ridiculous bargain price.

And then there was the recently arrived Bistro Bruno: Cooking from l’Odeon.

There has not, thus far, been a copy of Why Bible-believing Methodists Shouldn't Eat Black Pudding by Stephen B Dawes. Not that I recall black pudding being proscribed at home.

But anyway, it’s all very well having such books, but I don’t have a coffee table, so now I have to start putting some of the culinary wisdom contained in them into practice. They’re not meant for decoration – and particularly not the Escoffier and Robuchon, which are such serious cookery books that they don’t even have illustrations. Gulp.

First up was an idea for dessert from the Roux Eggs book: a coffee-flavoured custard, baked in a caramel-lined ramekin, chilled, and topped with sugar that’s then burnt with a little cook’s blow torch.

I’ve done custards before, so that wasn’t too daring. And indeed, if anything, the instructions made it seem slightly simpler than some previous ones.

I’ve only done caramel a couple of times and it’s one of those things that astonishes you with the speed at which it sets. I barely had enough time to get the golden liquid spread over the base of three ramekins and a tiny bit up the wall of one, before it had ceased to be liquid.

How experienced cooks do it – and particularly when they have more pots than my meagre three to fill – I’m really not sure.

Anyhow, after the caramel had set and cooled, I made a custard, with a teaspoon of decent coffee granules in it. Once decanted into the ramekins, these were baked in a dish that was lined with baking parchment and had hot (not boiling) water added to half way up the ramekins.

The oven temperatures in the book are apparently for a fan oven – I still needed to give the custards another few minutes over the stated 45 in order to ensure that a sharp knife came away clean after being inserted.

Once they’d cooled, they went into the fridge to chill. Later, to serve, they were topped with sugar and blow-torched. The result was divine – and it’s almost seems like a miracle: that the caramel that I’d seen with my own eyes setting to rock-like hardness on the inside of the ramekins is lusciously liquid once you break beneath the surface.

Not that I was the only one who liked it. I'd left a third one for today, partly to photograph (and then consume, of course). I turned my back for one moment – and there was Otto checking it out. Apparently, it's pretty darned good for discerning cats too.

The next thing I attempted yesterday was from the Robuchon: a gratin of potatoes and leeks to accompany the boiled ham with sour brown shallot sauce.

Perhaps what you expect with Robuchon is extreme cheffiness. Well, it is there – scallops with fresh ginger, for instance, would be in such a bracket, I think. But many of the dishes are really straightforward and not flashy in any way. This was an example.

For two people, I took a medium onion, peeled and sliced it into rounds of approximately 3mm thickness. Then I did the same with a leek and a couple of spuds.

The Other Half rolled his eyes when, reading the recipe, he noted that Robuchon calls for a bouquet garni to be made out of thyme, parsley and bay leaves, wrapped and tied in a piece of leek.

He rolled his eyes even more when I showed him that I’d done exactly that! It might sound posy, but if you’ve got the leek, then why not? Saves using muslin or cheesecloth or something like that.

You soften the onion and leek in a little butter, then add around 700ml of milk, a little grated nutmeg, salt and pepper, the sliced potatoes and the bouquet garni, and cook gently for around 35 minutes – or until a knife glides easily into the potato.

Heat your grill. Pour the milky mix carefully into a buttered dish and pop under the heat for around 10 minutes or until it’s starting to turn golden.

It needed a bit of extra seasoning, but that is a tasty side dish that’s far from difficult or fancy. And it went very nicely with the ham.

So, a good start to life with all my new cookery books. A one that will prompt plenty of further experimentation, I don’t doubt.

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