The art of French cooking

As many of you will be aware, I am currently travelling. We had a few weeks of camping, and we’re now coming to the end of our month in Europe.

A fortnight before we were due to be in Paris, my darling suggested, out of nowhere, that we look into a French cooking class. Clearly, this was an inspired idea. After a bit of googling we found Le Foodist, which had exceptional online reviews and which had spots available for our last night in the city. We decided not to book for the market bit at the start, because we figured there wasn’t much point when we were leaving 12 hours later, and becuase we thought we might want more time doing museum-y sorts of things.

The food

Our menu consisted of cauliflower soup, coq au vin, and peach Melba (which as an Australian I found hilarious). Our class of  twelve was divided into different working groups at different times to do a range of prep. While doing so we tried different French white wine and two different Bries. We ate everything that we prepared. 

Cauliflower soup doesn’t sound all that exciting. This cauliflower soup, though, was topped with roasted cauliflower florets that had been brushed with curry powder; with boiled mussels – whose broth was added to the soup; and with dots of truffle oil. (I have to get me some truffle oil.) It was exquisite. 

Coq au vin is something I have heard of, and may have eaten once or twice, but I haven’t made it. Making the sauce was a fascinating exercise: using a vegetable base and a large quantity of red wine which reduced to nothing, and then adding stock to turn it back into a sauce. Cooking the chicken was the most interesting part: salt and pepper on the chicken breast then rolling it up with plastic film into a sausage, and then boiling it for five minutes and resting for another five. It was delicious and succulent and this method is going straight to my must-repeat list. For the vegetables, we were introduced to not-melon-ballers: small spoon-like instruments with rounded ends that have a fancy name in French and come in a variety of sizes. These are used to carve balls from things like carrot and turnip. We were introduced to the sensible way to finely chop thinks like shallots. And we were shown how to make the best potato mash ever, which involved a fine sieve and a very large amount of butter.

For dessert, we made raspberry cousli and creme anglais, which then became ice cream, served with delightfully fresh peaches. It was a very simple dessert which was a good accompaniment to the fairly rich main meal.

The course

Our teacher, Fred, was excellent. He was good at dividing us into groups and showing us a variety of cooking techniques. He is passionate about food and French culture (the tag line of Le Foodist is “discovering culture through food”), and sharing his knowledge about food, the regionality of food, about Paris, and tricks for making food work. The premises aren’t huge, but there was enough space for the dozen of us to cut and stir without chopping anyone’s fingers off.  

Highly recommended. I absolutely intend to make chicken in this way when I am home; at some stage I would like to recreate the “au vin” part of the recipe too. I’m inspired to make cauliflower soup that really works – it gives me a reason to plant them again, too. 

Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits

Unknown.jpegThis book has been a part of my life for my entire life. My mum had it, and sometimes baked from it. When I left home, my mum got me a copy… but it was the new version: Unknown-1.jpeg

And… I did cook from it, but it never felt like the proper book. Then when my Nana moved into a smaller place and wasn’t cooking any more, I was lucky enough to inherit her copy; I gave mine to someone else who didn’t mind the cover as much.

At one stage I thought I would try to cook my way through the whole thing, but that kinda petered out. Nonetheless, I have cooked a lot of the recipes. And they are fine. So very fine. The recipes are easy to follow, they use straightforward ingredients, and they are invariably delicious. The book is straightforward and – look, it’s a Women’s Weekly book. It’s trustworthy. It’s arranged by ingredient – almond, chocolate, peanut, walnut) – which is brilliant for this sort of book. Pick your star ingredient, then pick your recipe, and go. Also, calling this a biscuit book is selling it short. There’s lots of slices, there’s meringue, rum balls, chocolate crackle… look, if I was forced to have only one book for cooking sweet things, this would probably be it.

A sample of the recipes, alphabetically: Continue reading “Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits”

Acts of Kitchen: Cherry Cakes

AoK_logo_v2In which I talk about waffles and I get to talk to Cherry, of Cherry Cakes, and marvel at her baking prowess.

We’re sitting at John Gorilla Cafe, which is why it’s a bit noisy; if you want to try Cherry’s products for yourself that’s an easy way to do it!

Cherry Cakes – for your dessert catering needs

Cherry on Instagram: I just… these cakes are amazing

Caroline Khoo’s I’m Just Here for Dessert: the book, and the food9781743368824

 

I’m Just Here for Dessert: the food

9781743368824Yesterday, the book. Today, the food.

(This book was provided at no cost by the publisher. It’s RRP $39.99; out now.)

While I quite liked the recipes I’ve tried from this book so far, I have to say that I am not the target audience for this book. I am not one for making particularly pretty objects. I have neither the patience nor the vision to experiment with different piping techniques. I am more interested in flavour than appearance, so I found this book a little frustrating. For example: I made the basic cupcakes, and they are a fine cupcake. I liked them a lot. But the only flavour variations suggested are to add zest; or cocoa and a bit of chocolate; or put a berry into the middle. And those are fine suggestions… but I’d rather be playing with nuts and rose water and so on. This isn’t a problem with the book itself – it’s a mismatch between what I want and what Khoo’s intentions are. If I had the patience and skill, I love some of her styling suggestions: topping a cupcake with a meringue rosette, a macaron, and a mini Oreo, all on top of dark blue buttercream? Spectacular! I just can’t see me doing it.

Anyway, what I have cooked: the cupcakes, as mentioned. Very nice. Also made her buttercream, and used it to top 16 cupcakes rather than the six she suggests!

IMG_1446.JPGDonuts. Oh yes. Courtesy of Alisa, I have a six-hole pan, and I made them and they are great. The first time I actually had no milk so I used double the yoghurt, and I think they might have been a bit better than the next lot with half yoghurt, half milk. At any rate, they are delicious and easy, too. The second time I made them I even followed the suggestions for icing: I made the basic ombre icing and used one drip of colouring, and iced a few… then added another drip of icing and iced a few more… and so on. And yes, having that progression of colour was indeed delightful to look at. So that sort of easy styling, even I can manage.

Ice cream: I have an ice cream machine and have followed the recipe that came with it. Khoo’s recipe is very similar, and didn’t have a different texture that I could perceive. I did follow her suggestion of making lemon ice cream, and I also followed her suggestion of mixing and matching two flavours. So as well as lemon, I made lime ice cream, using a couple of leave from my makrut lime. I think I should have used a bit more because it wasn’t quite as lime-y as I had hoped, in the end. I even amused myself by adding a drop of yellow to the lemon and a drop of green to the lime while churning. Together, they were indeed excellent.

Waffles. Yeh, I made waffles. I now own a waffle iron. I’ve tried a few recipes, which I’ll blog at a later date. In terms of the recipe here: firstly, we discovered that the waffle iron Khoo is using must be a lot smaller than ours, because while her recipe says it will make six, we made four that weren’t full size. In terms of taste, I really liked them; the texture was smooth and they rose nicely. I haven’t made any of the suggested waffle toppings because we’ve mostly had them as a savoury thing so far!

I don’t tend to make cocktails, but I happened to have strawberries in the house when I noticed this suggestion: put halved strawberries into some gin; allow to steep; drink. So I did. And it was delightful.

The most significant chapters of the book are the ones on styling cakes. I admit I skipped past those, because the idea of building three layer cakes and then decorating them with cascading meringue makes me freeze in fear.

At some point I will make macarons. For sure. Definitely. No doubt about it.

If you’re into styling, or want to be into styling, then this is a book you want. If styling isn’t your thing, you may want to skip it.

I’m Just Here for Dessert

9781743368824I received this from Murdoch Books at no cost. RRP $39.99; out now. Today, I’ll discuss the book itself; tomorrow, the recipes.

I love dessert. I called my 30th birthday party “my just desserts” and served only dessert.

This is probably the most beautiful cookbook I have ever held in my hands. I mean, look at that cover. The edges of the pages are all gold. Inside, there are exquisite pictures of food and baking utensils and some of the inspiration for Khoo’s own creations – buildings, flowers, and so on. This is a delightful book to browse through.

Khoo opens the book with a discussion of why she started Nectar and Stone, some of the places she finds inspiration for her designs – florists and bookstores! – and a recommendation that you play with colour. I think this section is meant to be more inspiration than anything else, and that later chapters give a little more detail. She also discusses key ingredients – including, intriguingly, that she prefers to use Nuttelex rather than butter because of dairy intolerance. She also includes suggestions for how to dress a table, and some ideas about how to photograph your creations if you want to take instagram by storm.

The cooking chapters are the eleven ‘layers’ to the book – yes, like an epic cake that you’d be terrified of trying to cut. It covers meringues, cupcakes, (baked) donuts, macarons, ice cream, tarts, small and large cakes, waffles, cocktails, and popsicles. Each chapter has a basic recipe, a few suggestions for flavour variations, and then ideas about how to style them. Also a whole pile of pictures to either inspire you, or make you feel like you’ll never achieve their perfection!

One thing I like about the way she presents the recipes is that there’s a list of ingredients… and then a list of equipment. This, I appreciate a lot. The recipes themselves are presented clearly and the method is explained in a straightforward manner. She includes tips on things like what to do with buttercream if you’re making it in advance, while the entire section on macarons (which is only layer four!) has a whole pile of advice and reassurance. I haven’t tried them yet…

Although this is a hefty cookbook, there’s not that much recipe-substance to it; a lot of it is the pictures, both of food and Khoo’s inspiration – pots of paint, buildings, trees, and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth knowing that this is not intended as an ‘everything you need to know about making dessert’ book. If you really want suggestions for how to experiment with flavours in ice cream, cupcakes, or cake, this is not the book for you. But if you want a gorgeous book to browse through, as a springboard for your own work – well, that’s what Khoo has written this book to be: she says she wants to “provide… the skills and tools you’ll need to shape your personal style of dessert design” (14). So it’s light on specific direction and heavy on general advice to ‘let your creative juices flow’.

Luke Mangan’s Sharing Plates: the food

Unknown.jpegWhen you have friends coming over for dinner, it makes sense to experiment on them with recipes from a book called Sharing Plates (sent to me by the publisher, Murdoch Books, at no cost; discussion of the book itself).

Rosemary popovers: these are in the Bread section of the book. You make a batter of flour, eggs, milk and rosemary, and then pour it into a muffin pan to bake. These were ok; they popped right out of the muffin holes (maybe mine were deeper than the 60mL specified in the recipe), which was amusing. I found them a bit too eggy to really enjoy like a bread roll, which is what I was assuming they would be like. The recipe calls for it to be served with seaweed butter (adding dried seaweed); I neither have easy access to an Asian grocery nor the inclination to try seaweed this way at home. I put thyme into some butter instead, which is still in keeping with the book as it does say you’re allowed to experiment with other herbs. I made 8, so they certainly count as ‘sharing’ food.

Salad of roasted pumpkin, chorizo, chickpeas, quinoa and blue cheese: from the Snacks and Salads section. I’ll be upfront and say I am made a few alterations to this. I don’t like blue cheese so I used a very good Persian feta instead; I left out the roast capsicum because I couldn’t be bothered; and I didn’t make/use the cabernet sauvignon dressing because I thought the chorizo left enough oil to dress the quinoa, and the chorizo and seasoned pumpkin and feta together all seemed to add enough zing. I did like the combination here of using quinoa and a few chickpeas with the chorizo and roasted pumpkin; the walnuts on top added a good crunch, and the preserved lemon a piquant tang. In the past I have made similar salads with couscous; I think quinoa is a bit lighter, and I’ll tend towards it from now on (remembering to not let it burn in the pot…). I guess salad counts as a sharing food?

Chermoula lamb: I wanted to use the salad, above, so I mixed n matched with the Chermoula lamb with pumpkin couscous, from the Meat section. Perhaps you can buy chermoula somewhere in Australia as a marinade, but I’ve not noticed it. I assume this because the ingredients list says “30g chermoula; 6x80g lamb loins…”. I’ve used chermoula before so I was happy to go make it, but I was really surprised to see if referenced here as something you would just buy. The chermoula/lamb combo was fine. To be honest I don’t really see how this counts as a ‘sharing plate’ since there’s nothing more ‘sharing’ about this than with any other recipe that serves 4-6 people.

Bounty bars: from the Sweets section. I was pretty excited about making these – the ingredients are straightforward (butter, sugar, condensed milk (!!), coconut, chocolate) and I love a Bounty. And yes, they were very tasty, and of course licking the bowls was lovely. However the instruction that “Using two forks, dip a bar into the melted chocolate and roll to coat all sides. Use one fork to remove the bar from the chocolate and the other to wipe off the excess chocolate” (p213) is deceptive. That process was far more difficult than implied: the bars had been in the freezer, to solidify, so the chocolate just stuck to them really quickly – removing excess was hard. And just getting them into and out of the chocolate was a process. Perhaps I need to use a wider-mouthed bowl, but that’s not specified in the instructions. In the end, because of how annoying the process was and because of just how much chocolate was ending up on each bar, I gave up on covering the whole thing and went with fairly serious drizzling instead. This was far easier and still, I think, deposited a good amount of chocolate on the bar. Having learnt this trick I would be happy to make these again. I did indeed make the 15 suggested by the recipe… they do count as a ‘sharing’ plate in that respect, although given that they are meant to last for a week in an airtight container, you could just as easily not share them…

At other times

Sumac-spiced pork and vela meatballs with fontina mash: the meatballs were great, although I couldn’t pick up the sumac, which was sad and perhaps not surprising since you put in the same amount of ground coriander, and then some allspice, paprika, and pepper as well. The recipe calls for you to have bacon in the mix, which I think is intriguing, as well as pork back fat… which I couldn’t find, so I just left it out. Not sure what difference it would have made, of course; perhaps smoother texture? I thought they were fine, anyway. The tomato sauce had anchovy in it, which I like for the salt and umami flavour. The potato mash was intriguing – milk, cream, butter, parmesan, and fontina. I did not add cream, because I don’t tend to have it just sitting around, but I did go out and buy some fontina specifically. Fontina is not a cheese I would willingly eat, being much stinkier than I enjoy… but I was intrigued by its addition to the mash, and I quite liked it. Having said that, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to source fontina for future mash: it’s not that easy to find, and it’s not particularly cheap, either. I’d be happy with either more buttery mash, or adding parmesan. The meatballs and the tomato sauce were very nice. Once again, unconvinced that this really deserves the moniker ‘sharing plate’; yes you can share it, yes it would be a nice cosy dinner party meal, but… it’s not something other than that.

Lamb empanadas: certainly count as sharing plates, and these were delightful. However, the info bar at the top said it made 10 empanadas; the ingredients list specifies 4 sheets of puff pastry; and the instructions say to use a coffee mug or glass to cut “10 rounds from each sheet”…

Things I haven’t cooked but give a sense of what the book is like: the first recipe is Quail eggs benedict with chilli kale on mini muffins; the final recipe is Soft Swiss meringue with berries and almond anglaise (actually the very last recipe, in the Basics section, is Wasabi Dressing).