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Archive for December, 2006

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A stroll on the Beach

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Frost on Floatsam

Jack frost was still around when we arrived in Borth for our Christmas break. The sky was clear, so I decided to go for a morning stroll. None of the others joined in. Soon I would know why.

The seaweed along the tide line was coated with frost. Borth is always full of surprises, and this time it was the many goose barnacle remains that were washed up (centre of photograph).

Sea at Borth

Poking around in the floatsam, I soon felt my fingers grow stiff. Although some hardened anglers lined the shore, it was way too cold to stay out for long. With the frost still paving the seawall, I decided to return to the warmth of the open fire back in the house to join the others for tea.
Borth Seawall

We spent the afternoon in Aberystwyth, doing some last-minute shopping. On the way back, we contemplated going for another walk to look for the submerged forest, but the tide was in. Moreover, stormclouds had begun to gather. But then, suddenly, the sun broke through, as if a celestial spotlight had been turned on

Borth: storm clouds

“Oh, that often happens here,” my sister said. “A hole appears in the sky and the sun shines through. Just over Borth, nowhere else.”
Borth Marina

Cooking the Goose

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

There are three people milling around in a kitchen too small to swing a frying pan in, and two of them are rubbing against you as they flitter between kettle, toaster and fridge. Neither of them are of any help.

You haven’t brought your soup-stick, there’s no fresh parsley and the chestnuts come in a net, not a can. Countdown: four hours ’till Christmas dinner. At six, everyone’s due for a visit at the neighbours. No delays.

It would help to have an idea how much the goose weighs. It rests on a wooden chair, wrapped in white plastic bags. It’s the size of a baby.

And how should it be cooked?

It will come together, it always does. At last, the visitors leave the kitchen, having assembled the breakfast on the dining table. It takes 45 minutes to peel and chop the chestnuts, but that is just enough time to work out a recipe for the stuffing. You make hasty notes on a post-it smeared with butter and breadcrumbs. Meanwhile, the man of the house makes a detour to the neighbours’, standing on their bathroom scales, holding the wrapped goose. Like a baby.

“Eight pounds.”

That is—what? 20 minutes per pound plus twenty minutes. Exactly 3 hours. You grunt contently. “We’re on target. Dinner at 17:00 hours, sharp!”

Christmas Table

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Jack Frost

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Tree in Frost

Winter descended suddenly, but stealthily. Yesterday morning, the perpetual fog had crystallised out of the air and dusted every tree and every branch with a thick layer of icing sugar.
Bridge in Frost

I had to go for a walk to take some pictures. Ninety minutes later, my memory card was full and my battery empty.
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No Substitute for Sugar

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

So to the last of the Christmas preparations: cranberry sauce (this can be made on the morning, as it only take ca 15 minutes, plus a few hours for the flavours to infuse).

After all that baking, I had enough of sugar. I remembered one of my relatives, who has diabetes, raving about a sugar substitute which is made with a sucrose analogue. This seems to be just the ticket: I reckoned that the analogue isn’t digestible, but would taste the same—maybe something along the lines of L-glucose.

So I went looking for the wonder-sweetener. However, what threw me off was the weight. The package contained exactly 1/10th the weight of a bag of sugar ‘with equivalent sweetness’. Even in its purest form, sucrose (which I used for making gradients in the lab) isn’t very different from sugar. This clearly wasn’t the ‘indigestible sugar’ I was thinking of, but something else entirely.

Sucralose, it turns out, is a modified form of sucrose which is 600 times as sweet. Hence the low weight of the package—99% of which was bulk.

Anyway, I took it home and dipped in a finger. It didn’t taste particularly offensive. Still, 600 times

I cut the amount from 6 tablespoons (recommended) to 4 and used it for making my cranberry sauce. Big mistake.

Sucralose is no sugar substitute, in the same way that instant coffee is no filter coffee substitute or there is no substitute for butter. Only more so. When added in sugar-equivalent volumes, the stuff tastes bitter—just like any other sweetener. I can taste the difference immediately.

So, I shouldn’t have used it, unless I planned on feeding a diabetic. Stick to good, old sugar!

Cranberry Sauce
Unless you are stupid—like me—this recipe is failsafe. Make up to 2 days ahead or freeze.

1 pack (pound) cranberries; zest & juice from 1 orange; 75g sugar; small piece muslin; fingernail-sized piece mace; ½ cinnamon stick; 1 star anise; 1 bay leaf; ½ tsp dried rosemary; fingernail-sized piece stem ginger; 2 tablespoons brandy

Tie the spices into the muslin, like a teabag. Use what you have available, or to taste.

Heat the orange juice with the sugar and stir to just dissolve. Add the spice sachet and zest, then pour the berries on top and simmer, covered, about 5-7 minutes. By then, they will start to pop. Stir them very gently until they have all just about popped, but still retain a bit of their shape. Fish out the spice sachet and stir in the brandy just before the sauce is cool.

Gravad Laks

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Photo by crazystitch

(For the authentic recipe and spelling—in Danish—check here. Note: if the salmon isn’t very fresh, I’d always wash it quickly first!)

Nigella is always good for some stress-free Christmas cheer and her ‘gravlax’ recipe brings some fresh spin to this traditional Scandinavian delicacy. She replaces the traditionally used white pepper with made English mustard (similar to wasabi in its firey-ness) and spices up the fish with a dash of gin. Where we differ (aside from the spelling and the salmon steaks the BBC website uses as illustration, instead of fillets) is in the way the fish is arranged for the cure. The two fillets should always be placed skin-side out, with the thinner belly of one pressed against the thicker back fillet of the second. This ensures that even pressure can be applied during curing and it’s how it is done traditionally.

Aside from that, this is a very easy dish to make, but very expensive to buy. Serve the gravad laks on thin, buttered rye bread with an ice-cold aquavit on the side. With this particular cure, a simple sprinkling with lemon juice and cracked pepper works well, as would salsa verde. I tend to avoid the disgustingly sweet traditional sauce (searching for ‘gravad laks savs’ gives exactly one Google hit! —Luckily it was to a Danish recipe search engine.) If you want to try it, there are many variations of the traditional dressing, but all contain mustard and (usually dried) dill, along with lashings of sugar.
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Liver pâté

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Onwards with the Christmas cooking business.

Pâté can be made up to five days ahead, and also freezes well. This recipe is loosely based on a River Cottage recipe (the place famous for the ten-bird-roast Christmas-special—don’t miss Channel Four tomorrow (21st), at 20:00! —BTW, I’ll stick to a single goose, thank you).

The bitterness of the pâté depends on the proportion of liver to other meat, and also on its coarseness. Since my food-processor is buggered, I had to use a pureé stick for mincing the liver, and it wasn’t sufficiently fine. From what stuck to the foil (hint: brush the foil with oil…), it tasted rather like the yucky stuff we used to make at boarding school in Denmark.

Whatever. It’s being matured right now, and I’ll find out what the final result is when we’re at my sister’s in Borth.

So, here goes:
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Behold the Nut of the Beast…

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Devil Nut

No offense—this is actually a water caltrop (also ‘China horn nut’ or ‘Ling Kok’ according to the receipt I got when I bought a few handfulls of these in Soho).

Apparently, its devilish shape has led to its use both as an offering in devil worship and in rituals to ward off evil. In any case, it’s an antidote to all the Christmas sweetness and light around here 😉

The Christmas Bakery—Spekulatius

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

Photo by Mr. Wabu

So, the sugar fest is over—at least for another year.

Everything around here is sticky. Not only my fingers, but also work surfaces, cutting boards, knives…even my feet are sticking to the floor.

As for my teeth—they are on their way out anyway, but I was hoping to preserve my smile at least until Worldcon. Fat chance of that now.

The injustice is that I don’t even like sweets. Give me a pickled egg any day, but I’m not one for chocolate and cookies. The only exception I make is for salty liquorice, and that isn’t what I would call ‘sweet’.

Anyway, Spekulatius. Traditionally baked in the Netherlands and Westphalia on the 6th of December to honour St. Nicholas, the name of this biscuit refers to a Latin term for ‘Bishop’ (Overseer). The thin, spicy biscuits are usually imprinted with embossments depicting scenes from the Saint’s life. Naturally, I don’t have the traditional wooden plates. Anyway, what do you take me for?
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The Christmas Bakery—Elisen Lebkuchen and Marzipankipferl

Friday, December 15th, 2006

Marzipankipferl und Lebkuchen

Both of today’s recipes are ‘professional’ in that I only know these cookies from shops and did not think that they could be made at home. Marzipankipferl are normally available in any German cakeshop as Marzipanhörnchen—this is a mini-version which should be a similar size to yesterday’s Vanillekipferl. They require patience, but the final shape doesn’t matter too much—coated in almond flakes and dipped in chocolate, they look yummy!

Elisen-Lebkuchen are the finest of the German-style spiced cookies—named after the patron saint of bakers. I did not do her honour!

Reason to prepare these two together: I used egg yolk for the Lebkuchen, whites for the Kipferl. Also, both use lemon zest. But bake them separately to keep an eye on them—unless you feel very confident.

Unlikely Accident No. 1: I stabbed myself with a pistacchio kernel. The kernel, not the shell. I was peeling off the salty skin when the damn thing sliced right under my thumbnail. Yeah, go on, laugh—I had to process garlic and chillies for that night’s black bean chilli and was in a house of pain. Ouch!

And today’s lesson is: Baking professional-style pastry is best left to the professionals (!)
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The Christmas Bakery—Vanillekipferl and Zimtsterne

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Vanillekipferl und Zimtsterne

Long entry warning

To start with, two classics which I thought even I could master. Ha.

Of course, nothing ever goes smoothly, but you can do better by learning from my mistakes!

These particular biscuits were baked together because I need yolk for the Vanillekipferl, egg white for the Zimtsterne. Use small-medium eggs.

Both recipes use hazelnuts for flavour. Try to find the full amount, especially for the cinnamon stars, although ground almonds can be substituted. Any ground nuts should be roasted very briefly to bring out the full aroma. Ground hazelnuts are not available in greater Tadley, so I used whole. Roast briefly in a heavy pan, shaking (they burn easily), cool and rub off as much of the peel as possible. Then place under a heavy knife, near the handle, and press down as if bashing garlic, but more gently. Move the knife along under pressure to smear the bits of nut out over the cutting board. Chop slightly to break up any remaining chunks and you’ll end up with finely ground (!) hazelnut. You can use a coffee grinder, but the nuts are oily and will take up other flavours.
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