Friday 30 August 2013

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce

A luscious confection of vanilla-scented poached pears, a brittle meringue case, flurries of cream and a scandalously rich caramel sauce. This isn't a dessert you can rustle up in an instant - it takes time and effort to prepare - but I hope you will give it a bash, because I reckon you (and your guests) will be delighted by the result.

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce
Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce.

Classic Pavlovas have a slightly squidgy centre, but this is a rather dryer version, because I'm a fan of crackly meringue that's as white as snow and crumbles to a sweet dust in your mouth. Admittedly, this isn't easy to achieve when you're baking such a large volume of whipped egg white, because much depends on your oven, the freshness of your eggs, the humidity in your kitchen, and the other vagaries of the sugar/egg relationship.

I'm not a natural when it comes to any type of meringue - damn, it's tricky to make - but after much experimentation I've found that a slow drying-out process is the way to go.

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce
What makes this dish special is the lovely taste of home-poached pears.

You can use any variety of pears for this recipe, provided they are small, sweet and just ripe. Yes, I know this is a tall order, because most pears are perfect for 20 minutes before they collapse into a floury mush.  But there are ways around this - please see my Cook's Notes at the end of this page.

If you're in a hurry, feel no shame in using excellent South African tinned pears. Your finished Pavlova won't look as glamorous, sure, but it will still taste glorious. And please keep the syrup for poaching other fruits. I put some cut-up guavas into the left-over syrup to cook, and my daughter described them as tasting of 'flowers and happiness'.

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone and Caramel Sauce

5 extra-large free-range eggs
a pinch of cream of tartar
250 g caster sugar
1 x 250 g tub fresh mascarpone
1 cup (250 ml) fresh cream
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla extract
¼ cup (60 ml) flaked almonds, lightly toasted to golden-brown in a dry frying pan

For the poached pears: 
5 small, ripe pears
2 cups (500 ml) water
1 cup (250 ml) caster sugar, or light brown sugar
1 whole vanilla pod [optional]
a thin slice of lemon, peel on

For the caramel sauce: 
1 cup (250 ml) caster sugar
5 Tbsp (75 ml) water
½ cup (125 ml) cream
3 Tbsp (45 ml) butter

First make the Pavlova. Heat the oven to 160 ºC. Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites in a spotlessly clean metal bowl. Add a pinch of cream of tartar. (Keep the yolks for making mayonnaise!)

Using an electric beater or a food processor fitted with a balloon whisk, beat the egg whites until they are standing up in stiff, dryish peaks.

Now trickle the caster sugar into the egg whites, a few tablespoons at a time, beating well between every addition. Take your time over this. When you've added all the sugar, continue beating for another 3-5 minutes, or until the meringue is extremely thick, firm and shiny (with no sign of grittiness when you rub a blob between your fingers) and easily holds its shape without drooping. (See Cook’s Notes for more tips)

Line a metal baking sheet with baking paper (put little blobs of meringue on six points under the paper to stick it down). Draw a circle on the paper, using a dinner plate as a template.

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce
The meringue should be very thick & glossy. 
Spread a third of your meringue mixture over the paper, in an even circle. The easiest way to do this neatly is to place a pile of meringue in the centre of the circle, and then - using a palette knife - gently press down and out to create a neat, swirling circle.

Now place generous dollops of the remaining meringue around the edges of your circle (see picture; left).

Place the baking sheet on the middle rack of your oven, and immediately turn the heat down to 110 ºC (oven fan off). Bake for for an hour and a quarter then switch off the oven (don't open the door!) and let the meringue case dehydrate for for at least 8 hours, or until it is crisp and dry.

In the meantime, prepare the pears. Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in the juice of half a lemon.  Using a potato peeler, neatly remove the skin from the whole pears, leaving their stalks intact. Drop each pear, as you've peeled it, into the bowl of lemony water.

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce
The syrup is flavoured with vanilla & lemon. 
To make the poaching syrup, place the water, sugar, vanilla pod and lemon slice in a saucepan, set over a medium heat and bring to the boil. When the syrup begins to bubble, stir it gently until all the sugar crystals have dissolved. Simmer the syrup for a further 5 minutes.

Place the whole pears in the syrup and bring up to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot with a lid, turn the heat down to its lowest setting, and poach the pears for 5-8 minutes, or until they are just soft.

Winter Pavlova with Pears, Mascarpone & Caramel Sauce
Let the pears cool completely. 
Fish the pears out of their poaching liquid and set aside on a plate to cool. Cut them in half lengthways, leaving a stalk on one half. Using a teaspoon or your thumbnail, gently pop the oval core out of each pear half, tearing it up towards the stalk to remove the fibrous threads.

Put the mascarpone into a bowl and beat it thoroughly until smooth. (It helps to leave it at room temperature for a few hours, until softened.) Whip the cream to a soft peak in a separate bowl, add the vanilla, and gently fold this into the mascarpone.

To make the caramel sauce, spread the caster sugar evenly over the bottom of a dry, thick-based frying pan, and sprinkle over the water.  Cook over a medium-high heat until the caramel is dark, rich golden brown, swirling the pan to distribute the dark-gold areas (see Cook's Notes)  Whisk in the cream, and then add the butter. Stir well and set aside to cool.

To assemble the Pavlova, fill the centre with two-thirds of the cream/mascarpone mixture, and arrange the pears on top, stalks pointing up. Place blobs of the remaining cream on top. Drizzle over the caramel sauce, and scatter the almonds on top.

Serves 6-8.

Cook's Notes

1. The meringue must be really, really stiff and glossy, or it will collapse in the oven.

2. The caramel sauce I've used here is loosely based on Gordon Ramsay's recipe. This is arguably the trickiest part of this recipe, as caramel is temperamental: not only does it burn with alarming speed, but it also has a tendency to crystallise for no apparent reason,  If your caramel suddenly turns thick and grainy after the sugar has melted, it cannot be rescued. Tip it into the bin, and start again in a new dry frying pan. Don't stir the caramel, and use a pastry brush to sweep any grains of sugar off the sides of the pan as it is heating.

3. To catch pears at their peak, place them in your fruit bowl alongside other fruits, which will hasten the ripening process. Check them twice a day by firmly pinching the flesh just below their stalks - when this is just soft enough to yield to the touch, peel and poach them, as described above. You can keep the pears, whole their syrup, for many days, until you're ready to make this dessert.

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Saturday 24 August 2013

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs

A creamy, delicate white cheese that's incredibly easy and inexpensive to make. I'm excited to share my recipe with you, and hope you'll try it, because it's so versatile and delicious. I've used a beloved Southern African staple ingredient - amasi, or maas, a soured/fermented milk - to create this drained cheese, and combined it here with some spiky contrasting flavours.

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
Radishes, capers, lemon zest, olive oil and salt contrast with the
delicate milky flavours of the maas cheese.  I've used rocket and parsley
 seedling leaves from my garden to strew over the cheese. 

If you're fed up with paying through the nose for cream and cottage cheeses, you'll love this method of making your own soft white cheese at home. A two-litre bottle of amasi retails for around R25, so the cheese shown in the picture above, made from a one-litre bottle of maas, will set you back about ten rand.

I can't understand why amasi doesn't feature more prominently in restaurant dishes or, for that matter, in workaday South African recipes. Full-fat maas is a superb local ingredient: it has a light, tangy taste, it's pleasingly creamy, and it has many well-documented health benefits

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
The shiny slick visible at the top of this beautiful plate is not
 olive oil, but a brush-mark of fired-on, glassy glaze, placed there for a
 specific reason by my uncle, master ceramicist David Walters. More about
 this towards the end of this blogpost!  

Amasi also has multiple uses in the kitchen. You can use it in place of natural yoghurt (my obsession this year!) in many dishes: it's a good tenderising agent in marinades for chicken and red meat, it's lovely in raitas, salad dressings and creamy dips, and it's useful for dolloping at the last minute into curries and similar spicy stews. I always add maas to fruit smoothies, and often whizz it up with frozen cubes of fruit to make instant ice cream.

It's also an excellent alternative to buttermilk and/or yoghurt in scones and quick breads: the best scones I've ever tasted are made with maas: you can find the recipe for Irene Ngcobo's legendary feather-light scones here, on my Scrumptious Facebook page.

If you're wary of maas because it sometimes has a slightly lumpy texture, don't worry! The long draining process produces a beautifully creamy, smooth-textured cheese, all on its own, without any need for stirring.

You can lightly knead this cheese (once it has finished draining) with salt, pepper, garlic, herbs and any other zippy flavours you fancy, but I think it's best just as it is, with all the bells and whistles served on the side of the plate. I love the contrast of the delicate milky-bland flavours and a few crunchy/sour accompaniments, mashed together under a fork with plenty of fruity olive oil and flaky sea salt.

Try it, also, with ribbons of honey and a scattering of toasted flaked almonds or pistachios, or with stewed grapes or baked figs.  Or roll the cheese into balls, coat them with pepper and marinate them in olive oil, rosemary, garlic and similar sunny Mediterranean flavours (see picture below).

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
Maas-cheese balls rolled in pepper and smoked
paprika, and marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary.
  Plate by David Walters

There's nothing mysterious about this recipe: it's a basic drained cheese, similar to a Middle-Eastern labneh. If you're not in Southern Africa, you can make this using Greek yoghurt (here's my recipe for a garlicky, herby yoghurt cheese).

Finally, a note about the beautiful black plates in the pictures above. My uncle David Walters, master potter of Franschhoek, works closely with some of South Africa's top chefs to produce bespoke dinnerware for their restaurants. He's designed these matte black plates with great care and attention, brushing a slick of shiny glaze right across its middle  Why? Because he doesn't want your fork to make a nasty scraping fingernails-on-blackboard noise as you clear the plate.

Which brings me to a little grumble. As I may have mentioned on this blog before, I can't bear good food served on rough slate roof tiles, a gimmick that has spread like a black fungus all over the restaurant world. (I was annoyed to see this fad eagerly reproduced by contestants on the latest series of South African Masterchef, along with the ubiquitous spoon-dragged 'swoosh' of sauce, or what I like to call a Plate Skidmark.) There are many studio potters in South Africa producing the most beautiful hand-made dinnerware, and I wish restaurateurs would support them, instead of buying their 'crockery' at builders' yards.

My feeling is this: if you're going to spend a lot of time and effort making exquisite, flavoursome food, please dish it up on a spotlessly clean, unchipped, smooth piece of porcelain, preferably a shining white or black plate with a lip  - or crafty concave surface - to prevent your jus from sliding off the edge.

Easy Amasi Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs

a litre of full-cream maas (I use Inkomazi brand)
baby herb leaves, to garnish
finely grated zest of half a lemon
Maldon flaky sea salt
freshly milled black pepper
1 cup (250 ml) small radishes, halved
4 Tbsp (60 ml) baby capers
4 Tbsp (60 ml) fruity extra-virgin olive oil
a squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

Line a large sieve with a closely woven cloth. I use a fine, clean cotton dinner napkin, but a brand-new J-Cloth (one of these) or a laundered dish cloth/tea towel will do just as well. Avoid waffle-textured cloths, however.

Place the cloth-lined sieve over a big bowl and pour in the maas.  Let it sit, undisturbed, for about 10 hours, or overnight.

The clear whey will drip into the bowl below, and it will also soak right to the edges of the cloth. Don't stir or scrape at the cheese: let it drain at its leisure.

Gather up the edges of the cloth, twist them tightly together and secure with an elastic band.

Hang the bundle over a bowl, or suspend it from a tap over the sink, for another 12-16 hours, or longer, if you'd like a firmer cheese. The longer you leave it, the dryer and denser it will become. If you don't have a tap like the one shown in the picture below, hang your cheese from a broomstick placed across the backs of two facing chairs, or a similar rig.

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
Hang the cheese up until you're
 satisfied with its texture.  
If you're going to hang it for longer than two days, or the weather is very hot, it's best to finish the draining process in the fridge. If your fridge has wire racks, clip the knot of the cloth to the rack with clothes pegs, and place a bowl underneath. If your fridge has glass shelves, you will have to hang the cheese in the coolest place in your house.

Tip the cheese out of its cloth onto a plate. Alternatively, you can press it firmly into a mould of some sort - a little bowl, or perhaps two small ramekins - a few hours before you serve it, and then unmould it onto a plate.

Scatter over the baby herb leaves and lemon zest, and season generously with salt and pepper. Arrange the radishes, capers and any other accompaniments around the cheese. Generously douse the cheese with olive oil, and finish off with a good spritz of lemon juice.

Serve with melba toast or crackers, or with celery and carrot sticks if you're on a low-carb eating plan.

Serves 4-6 as a snack.

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Wednesday 21 August 2013

Spicy Shredded Duck with Crackling

Here's my latest MasterChef recipe, the fourth and last in a series of recipes I've written for Woolworths, food sponsors of the latest South African series.

Spicy Shredded Duck with Crackling
Tender shredded duck with cucumber, spring onions and a
super-crispy topping of duck crackling.

This is a sneaky way to make 24 or more delicious canapés using just two duck breasts: first confit the breasts in their own fat, then toss the tender shredded meat with cucumber, spring onions and some sexy Asian flavours, and finally top each portion with golden shards of crunchy duck skin.

This dish is ideal for starting the day before, as the flavour of the duck breasts will improve overnight. I’ve used the five-spice powder sparingly, but feel free to add more if you’d like more perfume in the dish.

Spicy Shredded Duck with Crackling
This is a great snack for a cocktail party, because you can prepare the duck
a day or two ahead, and put everything together at the last minute. 

For more details about how to confit duck at home, have a look at my recipe for Easy Duck Rillettes.

Finally, this year, it’s not just bloggers getting the chance to get creative in the kitchen along with MasterChef and Woolies. Create a recipe with the same ingredients used each week by the Woolworths Masterchef Competition bloggers and you could win one of fourteen R1000 Woolies gift cards, or the (very!) grand prize of a R10 000 gift card. Head over to the Woolworths Masterchef Hub for more info and T&Cs.

Spicy Shredded Duck with Crackling

2 boneless duck breasts, skin on
80g spring onions
half a large cucumber
1 tsp (5 ml) Chinese five-spice powder
1 Tbsp (15 ml) Hoisin sauce
4 tsp (20 ml) rice vinegar, to taste
milled black pepper
Maldon sea salt

Heat the oven to 160 ºC. Place the duck breasts, skin side down, in a cold frying pan. Turn on the heat under the pan to its lowest setting, and heat the breasts very slowly and gently for 10 minutes, without disturbing them. This long heating process will help to render the fat.

Turn up the heat in the pan to medium high. Fry the duck breasts in their fat for another 4 minutes, or until the skin is a rich golden colour.  Place the breasts, skin-side up, in a small, shallow ceramic oven dish and pour over all the juices and fat from the frying pan. Sprinkle half a teaspoon (2.5ml) of five-spice powder into the juices, cover with a piece of foil or kitchen paper and bake in the middle of the oven for 20 minutes at 160 ºC.

Now turn down the heat to 120 ºC and roast for 1½ to 2 hours, or until the duck is very soft and succulent.  At this point, you can refrigerate the duck overnight (see Cook’s Notes).

Half an hour before the duck is ready, cut the cucumber in half lengthways and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut into neat, small cubes.  Finely slice the spring onion (you’ll use only the purple, white and pale-green parts).

Remove the duck breasts from their cooking dish, peel off their skins and set both aside.  Skim the fat off the top of the remaining juices and reserve – you’ll use this to fry the crackling.

Pull the duck flesh into shreds and place these back into the dish in which you cooked them, tossing well so every shred is coated in juices.  Keep this mixture warm in the oven while you make the crackling.

Sprinkle the remaining half-teaspoon of five-spice powder over the duck skins, then slice them into very fine strips.  Heat the reserved duck fat in a small frying pan and fry the strips over a medium-high heat for a minute or two, or until they are golden brown and crisp. Drain well on kitchen paper and season generously with salt.

Remove the warm shredded duck from the oven and mix in the cucumber cubes and spring onion.  Stir in the hoisin sauce and rice vinegar – to taste - and season with salt and milled black pepper.

Divide this mixture between 24 or more small warmed spoons – or little bowls – and top with the crisp duck crackling. Serve immediately, garnished with baby leaves.

8 as a canapé

Cook's Notes
  • If you’d like to prepare the duck the day before, follow the recipe until step 4, then tightly cover the dish containing the cooked breasts with foil and refrigerate it overnight. Gently warm the dish through in the oven before carrying on with the recipe.
  • The duck crackling carries on browning for a while when it comes out of the pan, so don’t let it get too dark when you’re frying it.

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Wednesday 14 August 2013

Puff Pastry Test: Little Mushroom Tartlets & Paprika-Thyme Sausage Rolls

I was so pleased to see two different brands of flat-packed frozen puff pastry in the shops last week. Puff pastry has always been sold in rolled cylinders in South Africa, which is  - when you think about it - a ludicrous way to package a product designed to be flattened out before use. I've hurled quite a few packets of cheap puff pastry into the bin over the years, infuriated at their tendency to crack as they're rolled out.

But, even so, frozen puff pastry is a convenience product that must not be sniffed at when you're in a hurry to put a pie on the table. I know how to make puff pastry from scratch (thanks to the elegantly beehived Mrs Pamela Maggs, who reigned over our school's shiny Domestic Science Laboratory) but I wouldn't dream of wasting a moment fiddling around with such a technical recipe.

So when I spotted the flat-packs, I snatched up a packet of each and took them home to play with. Here's what I have to report after several days of excitable pastry testing.

Flaky, crisp vol-au-vents made with Woolworths'
flat-packed All-Butter Puff Pastry, with a filling of ready-prepared 
spicy prawns.
Scrunchy little Piglets in Blankets with thyme and smoked 
paprika, made with Today's robust and idiot-proof
 flat-packed pastry sheets.

My verdict: a draw. I can't choose a winner because each brand has its own attractions. But what I can say is that they are both very good, and that the brand best suited to you depends on your budget, on your level of skill with pastry, and on what you're planning to make.

Pastry stars made with Woolworths' feather-light
 All-Butter Puff Pastry, and filled with tiny creamed Shemeji
mushrooms dusted with smoked paprika.

Woolworths' All-Butter Puff Pastry (R39.95 for two sheets) is delicious, with a distinct buttery taste and a whisper-light texture. However, it's quite tricky to work with. The pastry, being so delicate, warms up quickly and becomes sticky and stretchy, making it unsuitable for finicky cut-outs (unless you are an expert with pastry, and have fingertips of ice). As a topping for a pie, however, it is matchless. I used this product (in rolled form) for all the pastry dishes in my cookbook, and it is my first choice for any special-occasion dish, such as Beef Wellington or a complicated Chicken Pie.

The Today brand of puff pastry (which comes in a hefty 800g pack of four square sheets; a snip at R27.99) doesn't score as high in the taste department, having a slightly synthetic, margariney under-taste, but it is a vast improvement on the old cylinder-shaped variety. It doesn't crack, it rolls out beautifully, it rises well, and it is very easy to handle. Because the sheets are so robust in their raw state, they're really easy to cut into shapes, and they don't stick. I can recommend this brand for making budget food to feed a crowd, such as sausage rolls, cheese straws, small pot pies, and the like.

I made several dishes with the pastries, and here are two of them (I'll post more in future blogposts).

First, some scrumptious Piglets in Blankets, consisting of partly-cooked pork chipolatas rolled up in Today pastry with a scattering of smoked Spanish paprika and thyme.

These are so easy to make that a child could manage them. My teens formed a team and churned out a few hundred of these for my oldest son's birthday party last Saturday, and we kept the trays on the counter for four or five hours before slinging them, in batches, into a hot oven.

You can add embellishments of your choice to these: perhaps roll the chipolatas in bacon before you fry them, or add a shower of Parmesan or poppy seeds. Serve these piping hot with a selection of mustards, or try them with my Whipped Mustard Sauce.

Paprika-Thyme Sausage Rolls

2 square sheets of puff pastry
32 pork chipolatas
2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
a small bunch of fresh thyme
good quality smoked paprika, for sprinkling
1 egg, lightly beaten, for glazing
salt and milled black pepper

Lightly brown the sausages before you
wrap them in pastry.
Set the oven to 200 ºC. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high flame.

Add the olive oil and fry the sausages, in several batches, for about 6 minutes, or until they are lightly browned here and there, but nowhere near cooked through.

Drain on paper towels and set aside to cool. Line an oven sheet with baking paper and set to one side.

Lightly dust a board or your kitchen counter with flour and place the pastry sheets on top. Using the tip of a sharp knife, mark off two-thirds of the pastry. Cut this larger portion into long, narrow triangles, as shown in the picture, left.

You can use a ruler for this if you like, but don't worry too much about accuracy, because no one will notice any discrepancies once the pastry is cooked. (The base of the triangles, however, should be slightly smaller than the average width of the sausages.)

Now cut the remaining strip of pastry into similar triangles. You should be able to cut 16 pieces from each full sheet.  Arrange the triangles on the paper so their thin ends are pointing away from you.

Dust the triangles fairly generously with paprika (and anything else you fancy), and scatter lightly with stripped-off thyme leaves. Season lightly with salt and pepper, to taste.

Wrap the sausages in the pastry
 triangles, brushing them all over
 with egg as you go.
Place a sausage at the base of a triangle and gently roll it away from you towards the thin end of the the triangle, brushing it lightly all over, as you're rolling it, with beaten egg.
Just before you get to the apex of the triangle, tuck in a tiny sprig of thyme (as shown in the picture on the left), and seal with a dab of beaten egg.  Repeat with the remaining pieces.

Transfer the rolls to the paper-lined baking sheet and place in the oven. Immediately turn down the heat to 180 ºC, and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden, and the sausages a lovely burnished brown.  How long these will take to cook depends on your oven, so do keep a close eye on the pastry so it doesn't burn.

Serve hot or warm, with a mustardy tip of your choice.

Note: you can make these a day ahead, and keep them in the fridge ready for baking, but make sure that the sausages are completely cold before you roll them up.

Makes about 32 sausage rolls.  

Little Pastry Stars with Creamed Shemeji Mushrooms

These were tricky to make, as I mentioned above, because I struggled to remove the excess pastry between the cut-out shapes. The second time I made them, I used a chilled marble board and placed the cutters in the fridge an hour ahead. Press the cutters very firmly into the pastry to make clean cuts, and tear away most of the excess before you lift the cutter away.  There is, admittedly, some wastage when you use fancy-shaped cookie cutters, so this isn't a recipe to make for a crowd. However, you will be rewarded with cries of pleasure when you present these feather-light vol au vents, with their delicate, creamy mushroom filling, to your dinner-party guests.

For the stars: 
2 square sheets of best-quality butter puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten, for glazing

For the filling: 
150 g shemeji mushrooms, or similar tiny mushrooms
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
1 tsp (5 ml) olive oil
salt and milled black pepper
black pepper
3 Tbsp (45 ml) white wine
1 small clove garlic, peeled and crushed
4 Tbsp (60 ml) cream
fresh herb sprigs or micro leaves, to garnish

Delicately flavoured
 shemeji mushrooms cook
quickly, and are gorgeous
 with a touch of thyme,
wine and fresh cream.
Start with the filling. Heat a frying pan and add the olive oil and butter. Toss the mushrooms over a medium-high heat for about 2 minutes, or until just softened (don't leave them too long - they they cook very quickly!)

Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds, without allowing the garlic to brown.

Now add the wine and continue frying the mushrooms until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Pour in the cream, allow to bubble furiously for 30 seconds, then turn down the heat and simmer for another minute.

Season with salt and plenty of black pepper and set aside.

Heat the oven to 190 ºC.

Place a large sheet of baking paper on your kitchen counter, dust very lightly with flour and place the pastry sheets on top.  Using a star-shaped cookie cutter, stamp out as many stars as you can fit into one sheet. Now lightly press a smaller, round cutter into the centre of each star, making sure not to cut all the way through the pastry.

Brush the stars all over with lightly beaten egg. Carefully lift the paper and transfer it to a large baking sheet. Bake at 190 ºC for about 25 minutes, or until the pastry is well-risen and golden brown.

Use sharp cutters with this
 delicate pastry, and keep
 everything very cold.
Remove the sheet from the oven, let the stars cool for a few minutes, and then use the tip of a teaspoon gently to prise off the centre circles. Pull out any soft pastry layers from the centre of the stars and discard.

Place on a wire rack to cool. Immediately before you serve the dish, gently reheat the mushrooms in their sauce, and then arrange them in the centres of the stars. Trickle over some of the creamy sauce. Scatter with some baby leaves and take straight to the table.

 Makes about 10 vol-au-vents, depending on the size of the cutter. 

Testing notes:  
  • This is an independent and unsolicited test.  Disclosure: I am one of the Woolworths bloggers for the South African MasterChef series, and I'm paid for the recipes I contribute to Woolworths for the duration of the show. I have no association with Heinz.
  • I deliberately didn't read the list of ingredients for each brand of pastry because I wanted to be guided by my tastebuds alone.
  • I removed both packs from the freezer a few hours' ahead of time and thawed them on my kitchen counter, on a chilly day. Both were very cold to the touch, but thoroughly thawed, before I opened the boxes.
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Wednesday 7 August 2013

Billowing Meringues with a Sunset Berry Coulis

Here's my latest MasterChef recipe, the third in a series of four recipes I've written for Woolworths, food sponsors of the latest South African series.

Billowing Meringues with Berries
Crackly, billowing, snow-white meringues in a sunset raspberry
and Cape gooseberry sauce.

I adore big, brittle meringues, but it has taken me years to figure out how to produce a crisp, delicate, snow-white result every time. The secret, apart from very long and patient whisking, is to dry the meringues out overnight in very low oven. This may seem like a long time to wait for dessert, but the end result will not disappoint you. If you'd like a slightly squishy centre to your meringues, take them out of the oven as soon as you're happy with their internal texture (to test, turn one over and poke the end of a pencil into it).

Billowing meringues with a Sunset Berry Coulis
The first time I made this, I strained both the sauces. 
I've used both raspberries and Cape gooseberries for this sharp-sweet coulis. The sunset effect was a happy discovery: this first time I tested the recipe, I covered the plate I'd photographed (see picture above) and put it on the countertop to see if the meringue would still be crisp the next morning. It wasn't, but the sauces had merged to create a very pretty puddle.

So the next time I made it (this time without straining sauces; see first picture) I plated the coulis in the morning, then popped the meringues and berries on top at the last minute.

Finally, this year, it’s not just bloggers getting the chance to get creative in the kitchen along with MasterChef and Woolies. Create a recipe with the same ingredients used each week by the Woolworths Masterchef Competition bloggers and you could win one of fourteen R1000 Woolies gift cards, or the (very!) grand prize of a R10 000 gift card. Head over to the Woolworths Masterchef Hub for more info and T&Cs.

Billowing meringues with a Sunset Berry Coulis

5 extra-large free-range eggs
a pinch of cream of tartar
250g caster sugar
250g Cape gooseberries
250g raspberries
150g strawberries, hulled and halved
icing sugar, for sweetening and dusting

Heat the oven to 55 ºC and turn the fan off.

Separate the eggs, placing the egg whites in a spotlessly clean metal bowl. Add a pinch of cream of tartar. (Keep the yolks for making mayonnaise!)

Using an electric whisk or a food processor fitted with a balloon whisk, beat the egg whites for at least 7 minutes, or until they are standing up in very stiff, dry peaks.

Trickle the caster sugar into the egg whites, a few tablespoons at a time, beating well between every addition. Continue beating for another 5 minutes, or until the meringue is very thick and glossy, and easily holds its shape. (See Cook’s Notes)

Line a baking sheet with baking paper (put a little blob of meringue on all four corners of the sheet so the paper sticks to it).

Using two large spoons, scoop out an apple-sized ball of meringue and carefully place it on the baking paper, pulling the meringue upwards to form it into a billowing cloud. Repeat until you’ve used up all the meringue, spacing the balls well apart.

Place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven and leave the meringues to dry out overnight, or for at least 10 hours, without disturbing them. The longer you leave them, the dryer their centres will be.

Take half of the gooseberries and whizz them to a fine purée. Taste the purée, and stir in a little icing sugar if you’d like it sweeter. Chill.

Purée half the raspberries in the same way, then strain the mixture through a sieve, pressing down well with the back of a spoon. Taste the coulis and sweeten, if necessary, with a little icing sugar. Discard the pulp and chill.

To plate the dessert, decant the two purées into two little jugs. Holding a jug in each hand, simultaneously pour two puddles on to a dessert plate, gently flooding it so the different-coloured purées meet in the middle. Leave the plates to stand for an hour or two, if you’d like a graduated sunset effect – the line between the two colours will gradually blur.

Top each lake of purée with a crisp meringue, and decorate with the remaining gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries.

Sieve a little icing sugar over each plate and serve immediately, with lashings of thick Jersey cream.

Serves 4.

Cook's Notes
  • You will know the meringue is ready when you place a big blob on a plate and it does not flop over or subside – it should perfectly hold its shape. 
  • Before you make the meringue, wipe the inside of the metal bowl with a slice of lemon to remove any grease spots, then dry thoroughly using a clean kitchen towel. 
  • To avoid a speck of egg yolk ruining all the egg whites, separate the eggs one by one into two small bowls, then add the whites one by one to the big metal bowl. 
  • Store the meringues, once cool, in an air-tight container. 
Serves 6.

Here is the list of ingredients I was given to work with:

Egg whites
Castor sugar
Cream of tartar
Icing sugar
Corn flour
Fruit selection

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Saturday 3 August 2013

Spicy Parsnip, Butternut & Chickpea Salad with Soy-Roasted Seeds

My husband, who spent his early years in England, is besotted with parsnips, and whenever he sees a pack he buys them and hands them to me with a hopeful look on his face. I usually toss them into the oven along with the roast potatoes, or make a fluffy parsnip mash. They're excellent in warm salads too, particularly if they're roasted first at a fierce heat, which brings out their nutty sweetness. In this winter salad, I've combined them with chickpeas, roast butternut, feta, spices, mint, chives, coriander and - for essential texture and crunch - soy-toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

Spicy Parsnip, Butternut & Chickpea Salad
Spicy Parsnip, Butternut & Chickpea Salad. Do you like my plate? I
bought it in a junk shop this week; in its centre there is a handsome peacock.
This is good at room temperature, and keeps well in the fridge, but it's very good when the root vegetables are still hot. I've written the recipe with the assumption you're going to serve it right away, which involves getting all the cold ingredients ready to go while the veggies are roasting. (Read more about my recent obsession with hot-and-cold salads here.)

The first time I made (and photographed) this dish, I used some finely sliced red onion, but it was too aggressive, so when I made it next I added plenty of chopped chives, which have just the right gentle oniony bite.

It isn't necessary to rinse tinned chickpeas if they're in a clear, thin liquid, but I had to wash the organic ones I bought from Woolworths, which were suspended in a peculiar and unappetising gloopy gel.

It's also not compulsory to splash Kikkoman soy sauce over the toasted seeds, but I love the way this adds a salty burnish to each seed.

A final dusting of excellent paprika adds a lively tingle to this dish. I love the mildly hot, smoked variety of La Dalia Pimentón de la Vera, which you can buy in good delicatessens, or order online from Yuppiechef.

Spicy Parsnip, Butternut & Chickpea Salad with Soy-Roasted Seeds

10 medium parsnips, trimmed and peeled
1 packet (about 3 cups or 400 g) ready-peeled butternut chunks
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil
salt and milled black pepper
1 large lemon, halved
1 orange, halved
2 x 400 g tins chickpeas, drained
150 g feta cheese, roughly crumbled, plus extra for topping
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed, or more, to taste
½ cup (125 ml) chopped fresh coriander [cilantro]
½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped chives
¼ cup (60 ml) finely chopped mint
1 tsp (5 ml) cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) coriander
1 tsp (5 ml) medium-strength curry powder
60 ml sunflower seeds
80 ml pumpkin seeds
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) Kikkoman soy sauce
1 tsp (5 ml) good smoked paprika
extra lemon juice & extra-virgin olive oil, for dressing

Heat the oven to 200 ºC. Cut the parsnips into large chunks (I slice the fat end quite thickly, half-mooning the biggest slices, then cut the thinner end into 2-cm batons). Line a baking tray with kitchen paper and add the parsnip and butternut pieces. Sprinkle with 3 Tbsp of olive oil, then squeeze over the juices of one half each of your lemon and orange. Put the squeezed-out halves into the tray, and season the veggies with salt and pepper.

The alt title of the recipe here
Put the squeezed-out lemon & orange
halves in the roasting dish so you can
add their pulp to the salad.
Roast for 30-40 minutes at 200 ºC, fan on, or until the veggies are very soft, and just beginning to char at their edges.

In the meantime, rinse the chickpeas under cold running water (see my comment, above), drain well and place in a mixing bowl. Add the feta, garlic, coriander, chives and mint. Squeeze the juice from the remaining half-lemon and half-orange into the salad and mix well.

Set to one side.  Heat a dry frying pan over a medium-low heat and gently toast the pumpkin and sesame seeds for a few minutes, or until they are crisp and beginning to make soft popping noises. Watch them like a hawk, as they can burn fast.

Sprinkle the soy sauce over the seeds and mix well. As soon as all the soy sauce has evaporated - this will take not much longer than 30 seconds - whip the pan off the heat and set to one side.

Measure the spices out into a small bowl. Remove the cooked vegetables from the oven and immediately sprinkle the spices all over them, tossing well to coat (the residual heat from the veggies will help to release the fragrances).

Tip the hot butternut and parsnip pieces into the salad. Using a pair of tongs, squeeze the hot pulp from the lemon and orange into the bowl. Toss everything together very gently and thoroughly, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

You may need to add more lemon juice to the salad to achieve a pleasant acidity, especially if you leave it to stand for several hours. Chickpeas suck up flavours eagerly, and the lemon juice fades quickly into the background.

Tip the salad onto a platter, sprinkle generously with olive oil and top with the toasted seeds, some extra crumbled feta, and a generous dusting of smoked paprika.

Serves 4 as a main meal, 6 as a side dish

Like this recipe? Try my Parsnip, Potato and Cumin Cakes with Crème Fraîche and Chives

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Thursday 1 August 2013

Hot & Cold Winter Salad Niçoise (and a photo-bombing basset)

My uncle, master potter David Walters, gave me this beautiful hand-thrown celadon platter last year, and I immediately made it the official family fruit bowl, perching it in a convenient spot at the end of a kitchen counter for all to admire.

The alt title of the recipe here
Hot & Cold Salad Niçoise, and a very naughty boy.

Apricots, peaches, litchis, nectarinesplums, grapes, figs, pomegranates, quinces, kumquats and naartjies have filled it to overflowing as the seasons have passed, but I never thought until last weekend of using it for its intended purpose: a platter for presenting a bright and plentiful salad.

I feature many of these versatile crowd-pleasers on this blog because I'm a huge fan of complex salads with all the bells and whistles, but I've never posted a recipe for one of my favourite family dishes: Salad Niçoise.

This salmagundi of glistening Mediterranean ingredients is one of the world's greatest salads, in my opinion, and I could happily eat it every day.

It's the epitome of summer food, but in this recipe - because it is winter here in the Cape - I've adapted it so that it contains four piping-hot ingredients: steaming little potatoes, perfectly boiled eggs, blanched baby beans and hot blistered vine tomatoes. (I am most intrigued by cold and hot salads - my version of Gado-Gado, for instance.)

I have left anchovies out of my salad, as everyone in my family loathes them, but I can highly recommend that you drape a few of these over the tops of the eggs.

Do take the time to parboil the beans properly, because this will ensure that they do not fade to a muddy olive-green. (See caption below).

The alt title of the recipe here
I took this picture of my salad the day after I made it, to show you how correctly
 blanched green beans will retain their lovely colour for many hours. For this pic,
I changed only the leaves (which wilted overnight in their dressing) and I
 added a freshly boiled half-egg (because my teens had gobbled the lot).

I like this dressed with a generous spritz of fresh lemon juice, and just enough olive oil lightly to coat the leaves, but you can serve it with a classic vinaigrette made with mustard, garlic, salt, and the like. If you want something really extravagant, take your Niçoise to the table with a big bowl of basil mayonnaise or aïoli.  Both are heavenly dobbled all over the boiled eggs.

Every now and then, I make this with fresh seared tuna, but I don't think this is necessarily an improvement on tinned tuna, which is a superb store-cupboard ingredient with a character that is quite distinct.

And the photo-bombing basset? Our pup, Harley, is just over a year old, and he's a velvety-eared, thieving menace. All he can think about is food. He is obsessed with eating to the point of mild mania. (Not unlike, come to think of it, his adoring owner.)

The alt title of the recipe here
A very naughty pup.
Harley spends much of his day plotting ways to nick food from plates, cupboards, counter-tops and dustbins. If I stagger through the gate tugging packets of groceries, he launches himself from a good two metres away, glides through the air (ears flaring, Dumbo-style, in order to achieve extra lift) and swipes the bags straight out of my fists.

Not once, but twice, while I was standing on an outside table photographing this salad, he sailed from floor to chair to table, as silent as an owl at midnight, and appeared in my frame at the same instant I clicked the shutter.

A swift clip to the chops (okay, I will admit I used my foot) disabused him of any idea that he could sneak off with a boiled egg.

This is very easy to make, but it does require some careful timing.  I've given you quite detailed instructions, in a numbered timeline, so you can nail that perfect balance of cold and crisp / warm and steamy.

 Hot and Cold Winter Salad Niçoise

350 g cherry tomatoes
3 Tbsp (45 ml) olive oil, for sprinkling
4 sprigs fresh thyme
salt and milled black pepper
350 g new potatoes
a large cucumber
a small bunch of spring onions
2 tins of tuna in oil
350 g slim green beans
6 extra-large free-range eggs
2 packets of mixed salad leaves: watercress, rocket and baby spinach
½ cup pimento-stuffed green olives, or pitted Calamata olives
6 anchovy fillets [optional, and to taste]
a small bunch of fresh basil

For the dressing: 
the juice of a large lemon
5 Tbsp (75 ml) olive oil, or more, to taste

1. First roast the tomatoes.  Heat the oven to 210 ºC.  Put the tomatoes onto a roasting sheet covered with a piece of kitchen paper. Sprinkle with olive oil and scatter with thyme sprigs.  Season with salt and plenty of milled black pepper. Place the sheet in the heated oven and roast for 20-25 minutes, or until the tomatoes are just collapsing.

2. In the meantime, put the new potatoes into a pan, cover them with cold water and set over a medium-high flame.  Set a timer to 15 minutes.

3. Cut the cucumber in half lengthways and run a spoon down the middle to remove the seeds. Slice into neat 5 mm crescents and set aside.

4. Finely chop the spring onions and set aside.

5. Open both the tins of tuna and drain off any oil.  Set aside.

6.  Fill a bowl with cold water and add a few generous handfuls of ice cubes. Set to one side.

7. Heat a pot of salted water in a large pot.  Top and tail the beans, throw them into the rapidly boiling water and cook for 6-7 minutes, or until they are just tender crisp.  Fish them out with a pair of tongs (leave the water on the boil) and plunge them into your bowl of iced water.

8. Slip the eggs gently into the simmering water and set a timer for 9 minutes.  To prevent the eggs from cracking, put a teaspoon into the water, or wrap each one in tin foil.

9. Check that that baby spuds are tender by poking them with the tip of a sharp knife. Drain them, then return them to the pot in which you boiled them. Cover and keep warm.

10. Remove the roast tomatoes from the oven.

11. Arrange the salad greens, cucumber and olives on your platter, and scatter with chopped spring onions.  Now tip the tuna tins over to invert their contents, as shown in the picture.

12. Just before you serve the salad, arrange all the warm and cold ingredients over the leaves, tucking in sprigs of basil here and there.

13. Squeeze the lemon over the salad and sprinkle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and take the salad straight to the table, with a warm baguette.

Serves 6 - 8. 

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