Saturday, June 25, 2011

A non-Victorian sponge

Most Victoria sponge recipes (this one, for example) instruct you to cream butter and sugar, mix in the eggs, and fold in the flour. An alternative way of making sponge cake is to blend the butter, sugar, and flour first, before almagamating the eggs. You give the flour more of a going over, developing more gluten, which helps to give the cake a coherent texture as it rises. In theory, a Victoria sponge will be lighter, because the flour is merely folded in to the other ingredients. But this version was not stodgy at all. I'm afraid that my effort collapsed slightly in the middle, in spite of the bizarre attempt I made to stabilise it (see below), probably because I took it out of the oven too soon.

These proportions are slightly different from those in the Victoria sponge recipe. But I did not use all the egg. If I had been making a sponge sandwich, I would have doubled the ingredients, dividing the batter between two tins.

100g self-raising flour (or plain flour, plus 1tsp baking powder)
100g caster sugar
100g softened butter
1tsp vanilla essence (optional)
2 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat your oven to gas mark 4/180C. Put in a baking sheet.

Place a 20cm springform cake tin on a piece of greaseproof paper, draw round it, and cut along the pencil mark. Smear a very small piece of butter on the base of the tin, stick the round piece of paper on top, and smear a little oil on the surface of the paper and round the sides of the tin.

In a food processor, blend the flour, sugar, and butter, in short pulses, until you have a stodgy mass. Tip the mixture into a bowl, and stir in the vanilla (if using) and a portion of the egg. Keep adding egg until you have a gloopy batter; it should drop off a spoon, but reluctantly. If you've used up all the egg before you get to this stage, add a little milk too.

Tip the batter into the cake tin, spread it out and level the surface, and put the tin on top of the baking sheet in the oven. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until an inserted skewer emerges clean.

Now the bizarre trick, recommended by Peter Barham in The Science of Cooking: drop the cake tin from a height of about 30cms on to a hard surface (I hope the spring is secure). The theory is this: as a cake cools, the air bubbles in it deflate, like collapsing balloons. Dropping the cake allows some of the bubbles to break, letting in air, which sustains the structure. It didn't work for me - but I'm pretty sure my mistake was complacently to neglect the skewer check.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Crackling perfection

A feature of this blog has been its obsessive revisiting of certain dishes - crackling, rice, cheesecakes - in a largely futile search for perfection. As the last crackling I made was perfect, I won't apologise for writing about it.

Frying was the answer. In my previous blog on the subject, I recommended grilling. But frying enables you to control the heat more easily, particularly because of the layer of fat in the pan.

I had braised slices of belly pork, for an hour and a half, in a broth flavoured with onion, juniper berries, and peppercorns. (The pork went into a salad.) At the end, I sliced off the rind, and let it dry.

I warmed just enough sunflower oil to give a thin layer in a heavy frying pan. On the lowest flame, I fried the pieces of rind, turning them frequently to prevent their burning. Until the water had vaporised, they crackled and bucked alarmingly. After about 15 minutes, they were crisp and golden; they shattered in the mouth like honeycomb.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pasta with ricotta and spinach

A sauce made with ricotta left over from the cheesecake recipe. For 2.

250g spinach
1 clove garlic, crushed with a little salt
Small knob of butter
200g ricotta
150g double cream
200-250g pasta (depending on your appetite) - we had spirals

Wash the spinach, and discard any tough stalks. Lift it from the water, cram it into a saucepan, and cover. Put the saucepan over a high heat for a minute. Lift the lid; if the spinach is starting to wilt, stir it so that the leaves at the top hit the boiling liquid at the bottom of the pan. As soon as all the spinach is wilted, drain it. Either leave the spinach to cool and squeeze it dry with your hands, or do your best to push out the liquid with a wooden spoon. Chop up the leaves.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, throw in a generous portion of salt, throw in the pasta, stir, and simmer at a generous bubble until al dente - just on the firm side of tenderness.

While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat, add the garlic, and allow it to cook gently for a minute. Throw in the spinach, ricotta, and cream, stirring and mashing to blend the ingredients. Add salt to taste. Keep stirring over a low heat until warmed through.

Drain the pasta, and toss with the spinach and ricotta. The sauce is quite bland, even with the garlic: you may like to add a little cayenne, or quite a lot of black pepper. It occurs to me now that the sauce would have been enhanced by the grated rind of half a lemon.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Lemon mousse

This mousse is gorgeous. It has a delicious balance of citric acidity and sweetness, as well as a lovely, foamy texture. The trick - not one about which recipes are very helpful - is to blend the gelatinous mixture and the egg white at the right moment. Do it too soon, and the mixture separates and sinks; too late, and the mixture is too well set to be blended.

It is another recipe, following last week's cheesecake, from Reader's Digest's CLASSIC FAVOURITES. The RD version has an extra 125ml of cream, which you're supposed to pipe on top, as well as flaked almonds.

2tsp gelatine
2tbsp water
3 eggs, separated
150g caster sugar
2 lemons, juice and grated rind
125ml double cream

Put the gelatine and water into a small saucepan, and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl, and beat them with a wooden spoon until they turn pale yellow. Beat in the lemon juice and rind.

Put the saucepan on to a ring on the hob at its lowest setting. The gelatine mixture may seem thick, but will quickly turn watery. Stir it until all the gelatine has dissolved, and do not allow the mixture to boil - overheating disables its thickening qualities. Add it to the egg and lemon mixture, stirring gently but thoroughly.

You leave this mixture until it starts to set. How long is this? RD does not say. I put mine in the fridge; after just over an hour, it still swirled around as I shifted the bowl, but was no longer runny. I decided that this was the moment. I turned out to be lucky.

Whisk the cream until it thickens, but stop before it becomes stiff – the transition is rapid, so take care. In a separate bowl, and with a separate – or at least clean – whisk, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks (advice here).). Fold in to the whites the cream and the egg yolk mixture, which should have the consistency of a collapsing jelly. Again, perform the action gently, but do so until the mousse is thoroughly blended.

Spoon the mousse into a bowl, cover with cling film, and refrigerate for at least six hours.