Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas tips

Here is a column I wrote for the New Statesman in 2006 (here is the original). It may be of some use, or reassurance.

The most stressful cooking experience of the year approaches. In search of inspiration and reassurance, one turns to the Christmas cookery specials in the press - and finds complex timetables of tasks stretching over several days. But this is not an end-of-year cookery exam. It is a meal, albeit a big one, for family and possibly friends. Here, with apologies to vegetarians, are a few tips about what is worth doing, and about what you can happily neglect.

The turkey: The key point is to get it off to a good start. Take it out of the fridge the previous night. Turn up the oven to full heat for half an hour, and then adjust it to gas mark 6/200°C when you put in the turkey. After half an hour, you can turn the dial to as low as gas mark 2/150°C for the remainder of the cooking time. The rule of thumb is 20 minutes for each 500g and 20 minutes extra; but, with larger birds, the time side of this ratio decreases.

How do you stop the breast meat drying out? You cannot, entirely. Ignore instructions to cover all or part of the turkey in foil: they are based on the erroneous assumption that a moist environment keeps meat moist. In fact, moisture has the opposite effect, because it cooks so efficiently. I am not convinced that turning the bird during cooking has any effect, either - so that is another job you do not have to worry about. But it is a good idea to slide butter, and perhaps a couple of rashers of bacon, between the skin and the breast.

Is the bird ready an hour early? Excellent. Loosely covered in foil, it will retain heat for that time; and, in any event, lukewarm meat is fine, provided you have hot gravy.

Gravy: You do not have to thicken it. Flour numbs flavour. So making the gravy is very simple: tip the juices from the roasting pan into a bowl; deglaze the pan with water or wine, and add these juices to the bowl; when the fat rises, get rid of most of it; thin these juices with stock, made from giblets and/or the wings of the turkey (or vegetables, if you like). You can heat up this mixture at the end.

Potatoes: Parboil them, and let them dry. You have time to roast them while the turkey rests.

Stuffing: Put this into a gratin dish, which goes into the oven (below the potatoes) when the turkey comes out. Make bread sauce* in advance, remembering that it will thicken.

So, for the climax, the only new things you have to cook are the inevitable sprouts, and perhaps some glazed carrots. Get your assistants to take through the turkey, vegetables and stuffing, and to start the carving. Meanwhile, warm the bread sauce and the gravy.

Pudding: Make a lemon mousse the day before. You've already had bread sauce and stuffing; leave the starchy Christmas pud for later.

*Bread sauce - Put 400ml of milk into a saucepan. Add an onion studded with a couple of cloves, a bay leaf, a few peppercorns, and some scrapings of nutmeg or mace. Bring slowly to a simmer. Turn off the heat, cover, and leave for 30 minutes or longer.

Remove the flavourings, and throw in breadcrumbs. (You'll have to use your judgement on the quantity, bearing in mind that the sauce will thicken, and continue to thicken if you let it cool again before warming it later.) Bring to a simmer once more, adding more breadcrumbs or milk until you achieve the consistency you like. Check the seasoning; you may not need much salt, because bread is salty. Finish the sauce with a knob of butter, or some cream.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Scrambled eggs from a frying pan

Scrambling eggs requires fine judgement. You have to catch them at the moment when they are no longer runny but before the curds set and harden. The curds should be fluffy, holding the liquid content in suspension.

It is easier to spot the arrival of this state if you cook the eggs in a (non-stick) frying pan, I have found. It is certainly a good idea to avoid using a saucepan with a small base, which will not allow you to heat the egg evenly, no matter how thoroughly you stir. Of course, you could try using a larger saucepan. But I think that the gentler stirring that the frying pan encourages (so that the egg does not slop over the side) produces a better result, because overbeating results in a less pleasing, porridgy texture. The process is rather like cooking an omelette, only continuing the first stage (stirring, and pushing the set egg around to give the rest access to the base of the pan) throughout.

I admit that I've bumped up the contrast on this picture. But these eggs, which come from Nantclyd Organics, really are very rich and yellow.

Scrambled egg recipe here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Constance Spry's honey cake

My guess is that the foodie in your life, unwrapping a book on Christmas day, would be moderately pleased to find the latest offering from a celebrity chef, but absolutely delighted to find The Constance Spry Cookbook, just out in a new hardback edition from Grub Street. This 1956 kitchen bible remains the most prized work of its kind in numerous kitchens. Even if your foodie already has a copy, he or she will welcome a new one, because the old one is probably showing the effects of heavy usage.

Here is Constance Spry's honey cake.

3 eggs
2tbsp caster sugar
3tbsp honey
Grated rind of half a lemon
50g cornflour
65g plain flour

Separate the eggs. Cream the yolks with the sugar, honey, and lemon rind until white and expanded. I did this with a stick blender, which is far less appropriate for the job than a hand-held electric whisk would be. In theory, the yolks will whiten, and the volume of the mixture will expand considerably. My mixture got only some of the way towards this state before I gave up.

Fold in the cornflour.

Whip the whites until they form peaks (see here). Tip in the egg mixture with the plain flour, and fold everything together gently, until well amalgamated. The mixture is quite loose.

Spry does not specify the size of the cake tin. I used a 20cm springform one. Line the bottom with greaseproof paper cut into a disc (see here), grease the sides with a little vegetable oil, and pour in the cake mixture. Put the tin on to a baking sheet, and bake in a gas mark 3/170C oven for 35-40 minutes, or until set. (As you can see, I overdid it somewhat.) Allow to cool before turning out.

The honey compensates to a certain extent for the slightly dry texture of this butter-less cake. Still, it would be a good idea to serve it with cream, or buttercream, or perhaps a fruity concoction. The lack of butter, which is an anti-staling agent, means that you need to eat the cake soon after you've baked it.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Poached egg with spiced cabbage

Madhur Jaffrey suggests this combination (or rather, eggs with any kinds of spiced vegetables, including leftovers), in her book Curry Easy.

I used a quarter of a cabbage, finely chopped and washed; 1 clove of garlic, chopped; 1tsp mustard seed; 1tsp cumin seeds; a few pinches of ground ginger; cayenne pepper; and salt. Normally, I like to soften cabbage by boiling or steaming it, if only briefly; but here I prefer the crunchier texture and more assertive flavour that results from simply cooking the cabbage in the spiced oil. (Of course, the washed cabbage will introduce some water, which will soon evaporate.)

The earthenware dish in the picture will go on the hob. I warmed about a tbsp of sunflower oil in it over a low to medium heat, and cooked the garlic, mustard seed, and cumin for a minute. I threw in the cabbage, with the ginger, cayenne, and salt, and cooked it for a further eight minutes or so. The cabbage cooked down and became glossy with the oil and spices. I turned down the heat towards the end, as the cabbage threatened to catch.

For the eggs: I broke two eggs into separate cups, and slipped them into a saucepan of boiling water (with no salt, or vinegar - see this entry and the note it refers to). When the water was on the point of returning to a simmer, I turned off the heat, covered the pan, and left it for five minutes. I lifted the eggs one-by-one from the pan with a slotted spoon, shaking them gently to get rid of excess water, and placed them on the cabbage.