5 November 2012

"A pastry consisting of thin layers of puff pastry separated by layers of cream, jam, or some other filling"

Mille-feuille, for me, has indelible associations with cheap bakeries here and abroad. Even in Paris, you still see mille-feuille covered in that ridiculous marbled icing, which makes it look exactly like a Greggs custard slice.

So I had mixed feelings about tackling this: I was excited to try my hand at puff pastry, but not sure I'd be that interested in the results. Luckily, I was totally wrong.

Making the pastry, for one thing, is very rewarding. Despite the long description and recipe below, it's actually not that difficult either. It does take a bit of time, but most of that time it's just resting in the fridge, so you can get on with other things. Honestly, the hardest part is rolling the pastry out into a neat rectangle. That, and keeping the cat off the table when it's covered in tempting slabs of butter.

Once your pastry is made (or bought, if you must), then assembling a traditional mille-feuille is pretty simple.

The first step is to make a crème pâtissière - a strongly flavoured custard, thickened with flour and cornflour. The cornflour helps stabilise the custard as well as thicken it, so this is a doddle. It does want to be very thick, so that it can stand in generous layers on the pastry.

The first time I tested the recipe, I'd made a vanilla custard to the instructions in Larousse, but it wasn't nearly thick enough and it oozed out of the sides before I could even lift it to my mouth. I put the vanilla pod aside to use again, but by the time I came to make the second batch, I'd forgotten where, which is why I'm flavouring the custard with bay in this recipe. It might sound unorthodox, but bay is fantastic in sweet dishes.

The pastry itself is baked in a single flat sheet, weighted down to stop it from rising too much, then cut into strips with a serrated knife.

Layer it up, dust with icing sugar, and you have a simple but pretty sophisticated dessert.

The pastry bursts into buttery flakes as you bite, releasing a wave of silky, cool custard onto the tongue. Bay leaf gives the custard a distinctive bittersweet, perfumed edge - a heady, rich, and sensuous combination.

Making Puff Pastry

Puff pastry is made of two separate doughs, rolled and folded together: a paste of  flour and liquid (called the détrempe or water dough), and the butter layer (beurrage, or butter dough).

The first step, when you join the two parts together, is the most prone to problems - if your two doughs don't play well together, then the butter can squeeze out of the sides, or your dough sheets can tear.

The key to making this easy is to make sure both components have the same consistency and temperature when you bring them together, so that they roll together as one dough from the start. Get this right, and it's a breeze, albeit a rather time-consuming breeze.

Larousse makes this easier by using a beurre manié for the butter layer - where some of the flour is kneaded into the butter before starting, which makes it more pliable and doughy, and easier to handle. Still, many recipes just use butter by itself, beaten flat until it's pliable enough to be rolled into the water dough.

Beurre manié

However you do it, it's important to keep everything cold at all times, which means if you're in a warm room, you'll need to work quickly. This is a big part of why it takes so long - each time you handle the dough, you need to return it to the fridge for at least 30 minutes before the next step. The resting step keeps the dough cold, and also gives the gluten strands in the flour time to relax. This stops the dough from becoming stretchy, which makes it harder to roll and can make the pastry tough. If you start to feel impatient while the dough rests, just remember Larousse would actually have you rest the dough for 12 hours between each fold, and consider yourself lucky.

You'll to keep your work surface well floured when rolling out, so the dough doesn't stick and tear - but be sure to assiduously brush the flour off as you fold the dough, so that you don't introduce more flour into the dough. You can just use your fingertips to do this, or a soft-bristled brush if you have something suitable - an ordinary (clean!) paint brush would be perfect.

Finally, roll as neatly and evenly as you can. If you get a good rectangle, the folds will line up nicely and you won't have to waste dough by trimming the edges. The trick to this, I discovered about half way through, is just to roll diagonally into each corner, rather than straight up and down.

Note there's no salt in the recipe - I assume Larousse doesn't include it as it's destined for dessert, although a pinch wouldn't go amiss in any case. If you're following this recipe for a savoury dish, I'd include 2 teaspoons - mix it into the flour before adding the liquid.

Puff pastry

300g plain flour or pastry flour
300g unsalted butter, chilled
50ml double cream
100ml ice-cold water


First, make the butter dough: place the butter between two layers of clingfilm, and flatten with a rolling pin until it becomes pliable. Mix in 100g of the flour until smooth, then wrap in cling film and return to the fridge to chill for an hour.

Next, make the water dough: put the remaining flour in a bowl, mix in the cream, then add just enough of the iced water to bring it together into a smooth dough, being careful not to overwork. Bring together into a ball, wrap in cling film, and chill for an hour.

Once the butter dough is properly chilled, place it again between two layers of cling film, and roll into a square about 20cm on each side and 2cm thick. Return to the fridge to keep cool during the next step; the aim is for the butter dough to be very cold, but pliable enough to roll together with the water dough.

Place the water dough on a floured surface. Cut a deep cross into the dough, dividing it into quarters, then open out each quarter of the dough like flower petals. Roll the dough out, so that you have a cross shape, with a square slightly bigger than the butter dough in the centre, and each petal rolled out into a rough square forming the arms of the cross.

Brush off any excess flour, then lay the butter dough in the centre of the cross.

Fold the arms of the cross over the top, making sure that the butter is completely covered. Lightly press the edges to make sure the butter dough is sealed inside.

Gently roll this parcel out to a rectangle about twice its length, then fold in three like a letter, brushing off excess flour as you go.

Turn the dough a quarter turn to the left, so that the folded side is to your left, then roll out and fold in three again. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Repeat this step, rolling, folding, and turning, 4 more times, returning to the fridge for at least 30 minutes after each turn.

Keep well wrapped in the fridge and use within a few days, or freeze.

Bay Mille-feuille

Ingredients (makes about 10 pieces)
One portion puff pastry, as above, or use ready-made
2 bay leaves
500ml milk
5 egg yolks
50g icing sugar
15g plain flour
15g cornflour

First, make the crème pâtissière:

Put the milk and bay leaves in a small pan and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and set aside to infuse.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until pale and thickened. Add the flour and cornflour and whisk until smooth.

Remove the bay leaves from the milk, then gradually whisk the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture. Return to the pan and cook over a medium heat, stirring continuously. The flour and cornflour will cause the custard to thicken quite suddenly after a couple of minutes' cooking - when this starts to happen, stir vigorously to prevent lumps forming. Continue to cook for another minute or so, then remove from the heat.

Strain the custard through a fine sieve into a bowl, then place a sheet of cling film directly on top to prevent a skin forming. Leave to cool, then chill until needed. The custard will keep for several days in the fridge.

On the day you want to serve the mille-feuille, cook the pastry sheets:

Preheat the oven to 170°C. Divide the pastry in two, and roll each half out to a rectangle, about 1mm thick. Lay each pastry sheet on a baking tray between two sheets of greaseproof paper. Lay a second baking sheet flat on top, and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Remove from the oven, and turn on the grill. Uncover the pastry sheets, dust with icing sugar, then flash under the grill to melt the sugar and give a smooth, shiny surface.

Carefully lay the pastry sheets on wire racks to cool completely.

No more than an hour before you want to serve, assemble the mille-feuille. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut the pastry sheets into pieces approximately 5cm across by 10cm long. Coat two pieces with a thick layer of the crème pâtissière, place them on top of one another, then lay a third piece on top. Repeat until all the pieces are used up.

Croque Monsieur

29 October 2012

"A hot sandwich, made of 2 slices of buttered bread with the crusts removed, filled with thin slices of Gruyère cheese and a slice of lean ham"

I remember being astonished the first time I had supermarket bread in France, while on an exchange. Until then, I'd only seen baguettes, or the painfully crusty breakfast rolls we'd be given in cheap hotels. But here, in a family that religiously bought a fresh baguette every morning, was a pre-sliced loaf of pappy, rather dry, and ridiculously sweet white bread with only the merest hint of a crust. They would wrap slices around squares of dark chocolate as a snack, coming home from school.

Pain de mie is the distant ancestor of this bread-shaped candyfloss. It's cooked in an enclosed tin, which prevents a crust from forming on top, and restricts the rise, leaving the crumb evenly soft and fluffy throughout ('mie' refers to the crumb). That even, dense texture makes it particularly good for toasting, and thus the essential base for that stalwart of French roadside cafés, the Croque Monsieur.

It's easy enough to make your own pain de mie, if you have the time, but if it seems like too much fuss for a TV dinner, then a good-quality white sandwich loaf with the crusts cut off will do just fine.

The recipe I follow for the bread here is from Richard Bertinet's excellent Dough. As with all his recipes, the dough is wet and sticky until it's well worked, but it will come together in the end. Once proved and shaped, it's placed into small loaf tins, with a lid on top to constrain it.

You can get special lidded pans, called Pullman pans, for this kind of bread, but I just placed a greased baking sheet face down on top of the tin, and a couple of oven dishes on top to weigh it down. 500g loaf tins are ridiculously small though for bread that isn't being allowed to rise out of the tin, so next time I make this, I'd bake this amount as one loaf in a larger tin and adjust the cooking time.

Once the bread is out of the way, the croque is very simple - buttered, toasted bread, with ham, Gruyère, and sweet béchamel layered up, and served sizzling from the grill. Cut the bread fairly thickly - the toast should crunch from the grill, but you want to the bread to stay fluffy inside. I wouldn't suggest trying to use especially good-quality cheese here; it's not meant to be sophisticated, and in any case the taste should be sweetly savoury rather than sharply cheesy, the way Welsh rarebit can be.

And that is what’s so great about this sandwich: the sharp, savoury taste of browned cheese is tempered by the sweet, aromatic béchamel, which soaks slightly into the spongy bread beneath. Each bite has the crackle of fresh toast, but quickly gives way to the moist comforts of the béchamel-soaked bread, which has all the pleasing stodge of a bread pudding. It’s so much more than a cheese toastie, but at the same time it’s still delightfully junky, and perhaps a little transgressive.

Most people would probably suggest you serve crisp, bitter leaves on the side, or something equally cleansing and virtuous. We ate it, as befits its junk food status, off our laps, in front of the next episode of Castle. And then we followed it with a bowlful of Queen of puddings, for good measure. Be very sad that Larousse doesn't think to mention Queen of puddings.

Pain de mie

Ingredients (makes 2 small loaves)
500g strong white bread flour
300ml lukewarm water
50g whole milk
10g salt
10g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
One 7g sachet easy-blend dried yeast, or 20g fresh yeast

Preheat the oven to 250°C.

Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour, as when making pastry. If using fresh yeast, rub into the flour in the same way.

Make a well in the flour, and add the remaining ingredients into it. Mix until it comes together into a sticky dough, then knead well, until the dough is elastic and glossy, but still slightly sticky.

Lightly grease a large mixing bowl and put the dough in. Stretch cling film over the bowl, or cover with a clean damp tea towel. Leave to prove in a warm place for around 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Take out the dough and knead lightly to knock back. Divide into two, and shape into loaves.

Place in two lightly greased 500g loaf tins, and leave to prove for another hour. When the dough rises to near the top of the tins, lay a greased baking sheet face down over the top, with a weight on top.

Place in the oven, complete with 'lid' and weights, and reduce the temperature to 220°C. Bake for 20 mins covered, then another 5 uncovered, before removing to cool on a wire rack.

Croque Monsieur

Ingredients (serves 2)
200ml milk
A bay leaf
A large knob of butter
1 tablespoon plain flour
A little nutmeg
100g Gruyère, grated
4 thick slices pain de mie or other crustless white bread
2 slices of cooked ham
A little Dijon mustard

First, make the béchamel sauce. Put the milk and bay leaf in a small pan over a moderate heat until the milk comes to the boil. Remove from the heat and set aside. Remove the bay leaf just before using.

In a small pan, melt the butter, then stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes to make a roux. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously until you have a smooth sauce.

Simmer gently for a few minutes to thicken, then stir in a large handful of the grated Gruyère.

Grate in the nutmeg, to taste, and add a little salt - remembering that you'll be adding salty cheese and ham later.

Once the cheese is melted and the bèchamel is seasoned to your liking, remove from the heat and set aside.

Lightly butter both sides of each slice of pain de mie, then toast both sides under a hot grill.

Lay a slice of ham with a thin smear of mustard and a handful of grated cheese on two slices of the pain de mie, and place the remaining slices on top. Press down to ensure that the top slice is horizontal.

Spoon the béchamel over the top, making sure it goes right to the edges of the bread, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Return to the grill, until the cheese is bubbling and lightly browned.

Parmentier, Antoine-Augustin

23 October 2012

"Contrary to popular legend, Parmentier did not 'invent' the potato"
Silly French. Everyone knows Raleigh invented the potato.

By the time Parmentier came on the scene, the humble spud was already fairly well known in many European countries, especially Ireland and Germany. The spread of the potato across Europe seems to have been helped by the fact that people confused it with the recently introduced sweet potato, which, with its richly sweet, deep orange flesh, was thought to be a potent aphrodisiac.

Perhaps surprisingly, this failed to convince the French, who thought the potato was hardly fit to feed animals. As a cousin to deadly nightshade, it was sure to cause leprosy or dysentery, and in any case, if it had been meant to have been eaten, surely it would have been mentioned in the bible?

Luckily for frite-lovers everywhere, a talented young pharmacist called Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was taken prisoner by the Prussians during the Seven Years' War. For five years he had little other than potatoes to eat, and was surprised to find, at war's end, that he was still in excellent health.

Parmentier contemplating a bouquet of potato flowers.
Image in the public domain; taken from  Wikimedia Commons

During the years of famines and grain shortages that followed, Parmentier tirelessly promoted potatoes as an alternative food source using a combination of sound scientific research and some slick PR, including persuading Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to wear matching sprays of potato flowers, and hosting elaborate potato-themed dinners for the local aristocracy.

Parmentier's eventual success is commemorated in the many potato dishes in French cuisine that bear his name, like last week's Potatoes Parmentier.

This week, we followed that up with the more rustic Hachis Parmentier, or cottage pie to you and me. I took some leftover oxtail stew (we used Hugh's recipe) and piled over it a thick layer of buttery mashed potato, with a crushed raw garlic clove mixed in. Covered in breadcrumbs and drizzled with melted butter then baked in a hot oven, it made a warming and comforting, but exotically perfumed and intensely savoury dinner. Sadly though, the stew was a little too wet, which explains why it's no looker.

I took a moment at this point to get some feedback on this post so far:

Karen: I think you should explain more about the texture mishap
Karen: because you had a lot to say about it at the time
me: a lot of swear words

Wet stew does two things to your cottage pie. Firstly, it makes it hard to spread your mash out evenly; instead, I had small islands of mash floating in the gravy, which bubbled up around them, leaving the volcanic-looking surface you see here, rather than the pristine fluffy clouds I'd hoped for. Secondly, the mash starts to dissolve in the liquid, meaning that in this case most of the dish had melded together into a soft, purplish puree.

Luckily, two things saved it from being entirely like baby food: the crispy, buttery breadcrumbs, and above all that flavour - anise, cinnamon, chocolate, and wine, which lifted it from the homely to the sensual.

As well as potatoes, Parmentier is remembered for his contributions to the development of maize, chestnuts, and Jerusalem artichokes. He also apparently published a paper comparing the nutritional value of milk from cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and women. Sadly I couldn't find this paper at the British Library, so can't tell you what his conclusions were.

To see a bit more about how Parmentier is remembered in Paris today, take a look at The Daily Spud, a blog I cannot recommend highly enough. Books I found useful this week: Potato: A Global History, by Andrew Smith; The Untold History of the Potato, by John Reader; and Parmentier, by Anne Muratori-Philip, although I wished my French were a little better for the latter.


19 October 2012

"The meat of any kind of deer. In French, however... also the meat of any large game animal (including wild boar)"

I was surprised to discover that venaison can mean anything that is hunted. After all, boar and deer are very different animals, and equally different in the kitchen. But it turns out that French menus typically specify the species of deer used in a dish. In fact, the favoured species in France, roe deer, has a whole entry to itself in Larousse.

Over here of course, us being a bit less sophisticated, it's all called venison - despite the huge differences between species (just picture a moose, 2m tall at the shoulder, standing next to that garden pest, the muntjac).

Different deer also lead very different lives - fallow deer might live quietly in a park in Richmond, while roebucks across the Channel live wild, and are hunted with dogs.

All this makes venison much more variable in taste and texture than other red meat. Off tastes can result from the animal being stressed when it is killed, which leaves a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, from improper hanging - even from being shot slightly off target, if it prevents the carcass from bleeding out properly.

This might explain why venison is so often doused in heavy, or acidic marinades, or hidden in stews and pies, rather than treated as a meat to enjoy in its own right, the way beef is. Today's recipe - the first I've actually taken from Larousse, if we don't count the terrine, lets the meat take precedence.

First, catch your deer. I went to McKanna Meats on Theobald's road, just round the corner from the office.

McKanna's is a great, traditional butchers. They used to supply our free range ham and chicken to the cafe, which was always excellent, but don't assume everything there is free range. It's not the Ginger Pig - nor is it Ginger Pig prices.

I picked up 4 medallions for £6, which seems pretty reasonable to me. Medallions are the same cut that would be called sirloin in beef: the two tender, lean muscles running either side of the spine.

Bear in mind that venison is more filling and more strongly flavoured than beef, so you probably won’t need as much as you would for beef. My 4 medallions weighed just over 200g in total, and that was plenty for two of us.

The medallions are simply fried over a high heat, just as you would a beef steak, until caramelised and brown on the outside, but still pink in the middle. Venison cooks more quickly than beef and will continue to cook while resting, so err on the side of underdone. As with steak, the best way to tell when it's done is by feel.

They're served on top of dainty (depending on your knifework) fans of pear, lightly caramelised in butter.

The sauce is a simple wine reduction, thickened with carrot puree, and loaded with butter. It tastes somewhat raw and bittersharp by itself, and I considered trying to tone it down, perhaps with some cream - but, together with the sweetness of the caramelised pears, it offsets the rich, iron taste of the venison beautifully. I've never been more glad to have resisted the temptation to mess with a recipe than I did when I left this sauce alone.

I served it with Potatoes Parmentier - little cubes of crispy potato fried then roasted in butter, and loaded with rosemary and garlic. Most recipes I've found parboil the potato instead of frying it, or skip this step altogether, but I think this is more traditional.

If you're going for a Michelin star, you should cut your potato into exact 1cm cubes. We just cut them into large dice.

This might look like a lot for two people. You'll realise it isn't nearly enough when you taste them.

Pan-fried venison with pears

(Adapted from Larousse Gastronomique)

Ingredients (serves 2)
4 medallions of venison, or two steaks
2 firm pears
250ml red wine
1tbs finely chopped onion (about ¼ of an onion, or ½ a shallot)
1 small carrot, peeled and roughly sliced
50g butter, plus extra for frying
Oil for frying (not olive oil)

Boil the carrot until very soft. Push through a fine sieve to make a puree.

Meanwhile in a small pan, bring the red wine to the boil. Add the chopped onion and simmer until the wine is reduced to a quarter of its original volume. Remove from the heat, stir in the pureed carrot, and set aside.

Season the venison well on both sides with salt and pepper, then set aside.

Cut the pears into quarters, then top and tail and cut out the core from each quarter. Cut each quarter into a fan by slicing along the length of the pear, beginning just below the top so the slices stay joined together.

Immediately place the pear fans into a frying pan with a knob of butter, and fry over a moderate heat, turning once, until the pears are just beginning to brown at the edges. If there’s room, fan the pears out slightly in the pan, so that each slice gets caramelised. Remove to a plate and keep warm.

Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan over a high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, fry the medallions until browned on the outside but still juicy and pink inside, around 2 minutes each side. Remove to a plate, cover with a sheet of foil, and set aside to rest.

Reheat the wine mixture and whisk in the butter to make a glossy sauce. Deglaze the frying pan with a little water and add to the sauce. Season well.

Coat plates in the sauce, and arrange the pear fans and venison on top.

Potatoes Parmentier

Ingredients (serves 2)
500g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm dice
30g butter
The leaves from a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
A clove of garlic, finely sliced

Preheat the oven to 220°C.

Melt the butter over a low heat, and skim the foam and milk solids off the top to clarify.

Pour most of the clarified butter into a roasting dish, leaving enough in the pan for frying. Place the roasting dish in the oven to heat.

Fry the diced potatoes over a moderate heat until they start to brown. Tip into the roasting dish and toss in the hot butter with the rosemary and plenty of salt. Return to the oven and roast, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are crisp and starting to brown.

Toss the sliced garlic in with the potatoes and return to the oven for a further five minutes. Drain off any excess fat and keep hot until ready to serve.

I found Nichola Fletcher's Ultimate Venison Cookery very helpful in putting this post together. It has lots of information about history, cuts, provenance, and cooking, as well as some very interesting looking recipes (antler jelly, anyone?) and I can't recommend it enough. My favourite part? "People in Sweden used to ride elks, but the practice was banned in the 17th century, because robbers kept escaping from the police whose horses couldn't keep up with these long-legged giants."


13 October 2012

"Flemish mixture of potatoes and one or two types of finely chopped vegetables...boiled together then mashed and seasoned."
Oh, there's something special about a mashed potato. It doesn't really need messing with, beyond a splash of milk and an excess of butter. But a couple of extra ingredients mashed in turn the humble gravy vehicle into a warm, comforting meal in itself.

Small wonder that there are versions of this all over Europe. Colcannon, champ, rumbledethumps, bubble - and that's just the British Isles. Cabbage is generally the common element, but I'm also reminded of the mash with smoked haddock and peas that was one of my favourite childhood dinners, or the huge bowls of mash with garlic and goats' cheese that frequently passed for cooking in my first year at university.

The point is that it's easy, cheap, and uses up whatever's left in the kitchen, but also tasty, filling, and infinitely soothing: a big, pillowy comfort blanket to wrap around your middle on a cold night.

This dish is probably better known by its Dutch name, stamppot. Stoemp is the Belgian version, and so naturally the only one Larousse recognises. The egg yolk and crème fraiche make it richer, which may be more in keeping with Brussels cuisine, but this could be left out if you want to keep a lighter, fluffier texture.

It is of course infinitely adaptable to whatever root vegetables and greens you have to hand. It would be more traditional to use onion, diced and boiled with the vegetables, instead of the spring onions added at the end - and to use kale instead of cabbage, which would need a little longer to cook. You could also add fried diced bacon, if you're worried about getting your five portions of pork a day. Here I use what we happened to have in the kitchen, which is after all the point of the dish.

It wants a strongly flavoured sausage on the side - we had a delicious, sticky-fried and garlicky butcher's sausage with it - but if I could have found a free range smoked sausage to steam in the same pan on top of the cabbage then serve in slices alongside, I think that would have been even better.


Ingredients (serves 3-4)
600g floury potatoes
300g carrots
300g savoy cabbage or other dark greens, shredded
2 bay leaves
A sprig of thyme
4 spring onions, sliced
A knob of butter
1 tbs crème fraiche
1 egg yolk

Peel the potatoes and carrots, and cut into roughly equal-sized pieces. Put the potatoes into a pan with cold water to cover and plenty of salt.

Tie the thyme and bay leaves together with string, and drop into the cooking water. Bring to the boil.

After 5 minutes, add the carrots. Top up with just enough boiling water to cover the vegetables.

After another 10 minutes, place the cabbage on top and put the lid firmly on.

Once the cabbage is tender, drain the vegetables, remove the bundle of herbs, and mash together with the spring onions, butter, crème fraiche and egg yolk.

Season well to taste and serve hot, with garlicky sausages straight from the frying pan.

Deep-fried Artichokes (Carciofi alla Guidia)

“'Do you think Timmy would like me to fry him a few dog biscuits, instead of having them cold?' said Anne, suddenly. 'Fried things are so nice'” 
I’d given up on artichokes, really I had. But on a trip to the wonderful Blackheath farmers’ market, I came across a whole boxful of stunning varieties at the Nick Harper Produce stall, and they seemed to just follow me home.

I think I slightly offended the stallholder when I asked if they were grown in this country. I didn't think artichokes could be grown commercially in our soggy climate - certainly my own attempts to grow a few of these supposedly tough, thistly plants a few years back ended in blackfly-laden disaster - but apparently they can.

A momentary diversion to enjoy an excellent coffee and exemplary bacon sandwich at Hand Made Food just up the road:

They make their own ketchup. It is astonishingly good, richly spiced and bursting with sweet, ripe tomato, and I ate it with a spoon, once the sandwich ran out.

Back home, I pull my treasures out of their paper bags.

The first is a deep, pulsating purple with wicked golden spines. It looks to me more like some jungle flower or exotic fruit; but actually this is closest to the wild, Sicilian artichokes that cultivated artichokes are descended from. I've put it in a glass of water, like a bunch of flowers, to keep for later.

I also have two of these tiny beauties, no more than 3 inches across, small enough not to have a choke lurking inside and therefore ideal for what I have in mind: deep frying them whole, in classic Roman Jewish style.

The heart-shaped leaves have little notches where the spines would normally be, so these need only the bare minimum of trimming before going into the pan.

Like proper chips, they're deep fried twice: once, gently, to soften them, and then again at a higher temperature to render them brown and crispy. The result is a not entirely unlike crisps. A flower made of crisps perhaps, with the earthy artichoke sweetness running through it. Lovely.

Carciofi alla Giudia

Allow one artichoke per person - choose the smallest and freshest you can find
A couple of lemon halves or a tablespoon of vinegar in a bowl of water
Sunflower oil for deep frying
Mayonnaise and lemon wedges, to serve

First, prepare the artichokes. Pull off the tough outer leaves, then using a small sharp knife, pare any remaining bits of the outer leaves from the base, and peel the stem. Trim the stem by a few centimetres to remove any discoloured, dried out or woody parts, and rub a lemon half over all the cut parts to prevent discolouration. Use kitchen scissors to cut off any spines, and to trim the top third off the larger remaining leaves. Drop the artichokes into a bowl of acidulated water and leave for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile heat your oil to around 100°C.

When you're ready, pull the artichokes out and drain upside down on kitchen paper. Beat them gently against each other so that the petals start to open out like a rose. When I had this dish in Rome, the artichokes were beaten completely flat, but I think this way is prettier.

Drop the artichokes into the oil, and leave for around 10 minutes, until they are soft enough to spear with a fork. Remove and drain on several sheets of kitchen paper, and season generously with salt and pepper. Gently pull the petals apart with a fork if needed to open the artichoke out fully.

Turn up the heat, until the oil reaches 180°C. Drop the artichokes in again until crisp and browned - this will only take around 30 seconds. Drain well and serve warm, with plenty of salt, a spoonful of mayonnaise, and a lemon wedge on the side.

See Hand Made Food on Urbanspoon: Hand Made Food on Urbanspoon

Beaufort and Artichoke Terrine

6 October 2012

"Luckily, I also brought home a large, green globe, so I have another chance at glory"
Famous last words. I made such a mess of this, I almost didn't write about it. But Karen, quite rightly, pointed out that it would have been dishonest not to. Learning new things is as much about failing as it is about succeeding, after all.

The first step is to marinate the cheese. Beaufort is a wonderful nutty, aromatic sweet-sharp mountain cheese, somewhat similar to Gruyère but richer and rounder, and it takes an effort of will to dice it and drop it into a cupful of wine, rather than putting both cheese and wine in my mouth. But I remain strong, and leave the teacupful of cheese and wine in the fridge.

A couple of days later, it's time to tackle the artichoke. Artichokes blacken unbelievably quickly on exposure to air, so I needed some acidulated water to hand. Falling at the first hurdle, I manage to cut myself while cutting a lime in half. (Lemon would be more usual, but we happened to have limes coming out of our ears that day.)

Once the blood is all cleaned up, I slice the stem off the artichoke, then start to pare the leaves, rubbing the cut surface with half a lime as I go.

Next I slice the crown of leaves at the top off, leaving just the choke to be scraped off with a teaspoon. I rinse the heart under the tap to double check no spines are left, then slice it up and drop it into the acidulated water.

In an enamel bowl, I alternate layers of the artichoke slices with the diced cheese, and a savoury custard poured on top. It's then meant to go into the oven for 75 minutes, but after just over half an hour the top is thoroughly browned so I pull it out.

It looks rather overdone. I start complaining to Karen about how much more quickly it cooked than the recipe suggested. "Weren't you supposed to wrap it in pancetta?" she asks. Yes. "Wouldn't that have stopped it from overcooking?" Most probably. "Oh, and this cream in the fridge, didn't we buy that for this dish?" Yes, yes we did.

I've never been much of a one for following recipes, and I suppose this is my comeuppance. I hope I've learned my lesson.

The second lesson comes a day or so later, when I actually get around to tasting the result: If you have a beautiful ingredient, say for example a slice of Beaufort cheese, and your instinct tells you that it couldn't possibly be improved by elaborate preparation, you're probably right.

I think for a moment of how much I'd have enjoyed eating that cheese by itself, without so much as a cracker to interfere with the taste - and for that matter, how much I enjoy pulling the leaves off a steamed artichoke and scraping the succulent base off with my teeth - and ruefully scrape the remains of the terrine into the bin.