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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It doesn't look so pretty...

But I can assure you it tasted great!

It occured to me after looking back over my first few posts that I am yet to give a recipe for anything savoury. And bearing in mind my HUGE pasta addiction (to which Chris will attest and probably groan at, seeing as I try to feed it to him at least twice a week despite his adamant and definitely ridiculous view that it is far tastier eaten only occasionally), what could be better that a gorgeous Sunday-night chicken & mushroom fusilli with bacon, chilli, rocket and basil?

Over the years my relationship with this ubiquitous foodstuff has changed and, I like to think, grown somewhat to reflect my furthered knowledge and experience in the kitchen. I've always loved it in its myriad forms, and been happy to consume it pretty much to the exclusion of all other foods, however I can dimly remember a time in my childhood when the pinnacle of my pasta experiences involved spaghetti with minced meat sauce and pretend parmesan cheese. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but how things change! I now make, buy and consume varying fresh and filled pastas, along with the craziest of dried shapes coated in everything from basic tomato sugo to slow-cooked shredded rabbit with olives, pancetta and tiny onions. Which, unfortunately, has landed me with a slight problem: I am now unable to order pasta off most restaurant menus.

That's right. Call me picky, a snob perhaps, but I have spent so long in my own kitchen playing with pasta that the overcooked, oversauced and underflavoured (or just plain weird) offerings of many a 'cafe' or pub menu simply don't cut it anymore. There are notable exceptions at a few higher-end restaurants in Perth, but for the most part I must venture away from the pasta section on the menu and head instead for the proteins. A tall order for someone who loves the stuff as much as I do!

Anyway, back to Sunday night's chicken and mushroom creation. It's not my best ever, but was more than serviceable as a 'pull everything out of the fridge and chuck it in a pan' dinner for two. I've done my best to remember the main points below...

Chicken & Mushroom Fusilli
enough for 2

200g fusilli pasta
1 small chicken breast (always free range, people!!), diced
1 clove garlic, minced
salt, pepper, oregano for seasoning your chicken
2tbs olive oil
8 button mushrooms, sliced
1 shallot, finely diced
2 rashers bacon, diced
1 chilli, sliced (more if you like it hot)
250ml tomato puree
a big handful of rocket and basil
parmesan cheese

Cook your pasta until al dente, then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large frypan over medium heat. Season your chicken with garlic, salt, pepper and oregano to taste (I just sprinkle the seasonings over chicken in a bowl and mix with my hands). Add the oil to your chicken and mix, then fry until browned all over (doesn't need to be cooked all the way through, you'll finish it off later). Remove from pan and set aside.

Place the pan back on medium heat and add the mushrooms. Cook for a minute or two until they start to brown and have lost most of their 'juice', then add your shallot, bacon and chilli to the pan. Cook until the bacon is browned, then add the tomato puree and a touch of hot water to thin the mixture if you need it. Add your browned chicken back to the pan and cook everything until the chicken is cooked through.

Add your drained pasta and rocket/basil mix to the pan and mix thoroughly. At this stage I like to add a handful of grated parmesan and mix it through, rather than just sprinkle it all on top once it's in the bowl. Season to taste and adjust if necessary.

Serve your pasta in large bowls with more parmesan cheese on top, and enjoy!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sweet treats

Today's delicious post comes about thanks to my brainstorming session earlier in the week regarding possible 'Christmas products' for my business this year. Yes, I agree it is a little early for most of us to be thinking about the festive season, however any additions to my product range need to be thoroughly tested and perfected by about June in order to fit in with production/packaging/distribution timelines for the remainder of the year (it's a long and tedious process the details of which will bore most of you to death, so I shan't go on about the 'un-fun-ness' and lack of spontaneity in developing Christmas products at Easter!).

All of which leads us, in a roundabout way, to caramels.

I suspect that the main reason I have never pursued a career as a chocolatier or master pastry chef may have something to do with the mind-altering effect large quantities of fabulous chocolate, dairy and sugar products have on me. In moderate 'finished product' quantities I have some form of willpower not to eat everything in sight, but put me in a kitchen with a candy thermometer and a few select ingredients and I will taste-test until I make myself sick. Which, though I am slightly ashamed to admit it, is precisely what's been happening with these delicious little salted caramels I tested out a couple of days ago.

After deciding that caramels/toffee could be a great addition to the silly season range, it was straight to my bookshelves for inspiration and recipes. And although I found several ideas which would probably suffice, it occured to me that I am lacking in dedicated candy making books (something which I will shortly be rectifying with the purchase of this book and possibly also this one). So off I went to the great resource of my laptop and its lovely fast broadband speeds - thankyou Chris - and came across the Chocolate Gourmand, aka Brian from San Francisco. Brian's site is a great resource for amateur candymakers, full of delicious sounding recipes and detailed explanations (including step-by-step photos) of how to achieve the right results. The process of candy-making can be quite daunting if you've never attempted anything like it before, so these descriptions and details go a long way to de-mystifying it.

It's Brian's recipe for Classic Cream Caramels I share below, almost word for word, with the small addition of a tiny sprinkling of good sea salt over the top of the finished slab (whoever thought up salted caramels deserves only good things to happen to them). Being a bit of a novice in this area, I was thrilled with my first attempt at his recipe and hope he won't mind me sharing the love. Other things on my list to try soon are his Pecan Maple Caramels and English Toffee.

After making my caramel, I set most of it in a large baking tray lined with silicone paper, but also put a bit into some silicone ice cube trays I bought - they are the perfect shape and size to make individual caramels, however I soon established that my two (36 pieces all up) moulds would be severely inadequate for the quantity of caramel I had made. They are also fiddly to fill and I think on reflection it would be easier (if not so pedantically same-sized) to pour all of it into baking trays and just cut my set slab into individual portions.

I cooked the caramel to about 118-119C before taking it off the heat, which is a bit higher than the normal range specified in the recipe. This is because I knew I wouldn't be dipping the finished pieces into chocolate and wanted it to set hard enough not to run all over the place after being wrapped (not that chocolate-coated caramel is at all bad, it's just that I still haven't managed to get myself the tempering machine of my chocolatier-girl fantasies and can't bear my inadequacy when tempering by hand, or the compound chocolate alternative which would destroy the gorgeous morsels inside its chalky, cheap and nasty coating).

I am undecided about precise wrapping and packaging of these delicious treats, but think maybe the best way to go would be to cut bars of whatever size you prefer and wrap them in waxed/silicone paper before wrapping again in cellophane or boxing. Beware the cut but not wrapped caramel, it will become sticky, oozy and quite unattractive (yet still extremely tasty!) if left out, particularly in humid/damp weather.

Classic Cream Caramel
from The Chocolate Gourmand site

2 cups light corn syrup (for us Australians, liquid glucose is fine - not an exact substitute but pretty close)
4 cups sugar
60g unsalted butter, cubed
4 cups (1l) whipping cream
1 tsp salt
1 tbs vanilla extract (I used vanilla paste)
oil for greasing

Using safflower oil and a paper towel, generously oil a 23x33cm (9x13in) foil-lined baking dish (or do as I did and line your dish with silicone paper, which negates the need for greasing).

Combine the sugar and corn syrup in a large saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until it comes to a boil. Wash down the sides of the pan several times with water using a pastry brush. Stop stirring and place a candy thermometer in pan (I bought mine for $4.95 at Kitchen Warehouse) and continue to boil over medium-high heat. You are going to boil the sugar syrup mixture until it reaches 151C (305F), which will take about 10 minutes or so.

While you are waiting for the sugar syrup mixture to heat you can heat the cream in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently until simmering. Remove from heat and set aside.

Once the sugar syrup has reached 151C (305F), reduce heat and slowly add the cubed butter. Slowly add the hot cream to the sugar mixture. I usually do this with a small ladle or measuring cup. Keep the mixture boiling while adding the cream, but beware of boil-over if you add the cream too quickly. The boiling mixture will rise rapidly after adding the cream. Let the mixture settle down before adding more cream. The game is to keep it boiling without letting it overflow.

Once the cream has all been added, continue stirring constantly until the mixture reaches 116C (242-243F) for dipping or 117C (246-248F) for wrapping. If you like your caramel harder, you can keep heating it until you get to around 119C (250F). If you like your caramel soft, be careful not to make it too soft. Extra gooey caramel is hard to package or dip. The caramel will usually continue to heat a degree past when you remove it from heat.

Let sit for 5 minutes before my favourite part: stirring in the salt and vanilla. Once you pour in the vanilla and salt, stir just until blended. As you stir the vanilla into the caramel, the vanilla bourbon will boil off and you can inhale the intense vanilla smell.

Pour mixture into prepared baking pan. Cover well and let cool overnight. Once you are ready to dip or wrap, peel the foil off the caramel. Oil a large plastic cutting board and place the caramel slab there. Slice into pieces and wrap or dip.

I typically prefer to make my dipped caramels more gooey than the wrapped caramels, but note that softer caramels are more difficult to work with and dip. Even firm caramels will succumb to gravity and sag after a few minutes. When dipping, slice off only as much as you need from the main block to maintain rectangular shapes.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The early morning collision of the seasons

I love stone fruit.

Every year, despite not being a heat-tolerant kind of girl in general (perhaps something to do with my all-too-easily burnt skin every time I go outside!), I eagerly await the summer arrival of peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums, along with their myriad variations and cross-breeds. Admittedly, I usually get so excited by my first sighting of summer fruit in the stores that I buy up these early arrivals and am inevitably disappointed by their lacklustre taste and texture. One day I may learn my lesson - these imposter fruits must be put on the shelves simply to tease us with their outer beauty...

Nevertheless, the season goes on and the fruit, in most cases, gets better. And although we're pretty well at the tail end of stone fruit for this year, I did pick up some gorgeous plums at my local greengrocer this week.

So what about the collision of the seasons post title for today? Well, summer's been covered above, but with the slightly cooler weather over the past few days it seems my appetite was also whet for a bit of winter warming - thus a breakfast combination of tart and juicy poached plums with soft and comforting porridge was in order. It's probably not the most common of food marriages (stewed apples or rhubarb coming to mind more as fruits to serve with porridge), however if you haven't tried it I can assure you that there's something a bit inexplicably special about the combination.

Not so much a recipe, really, then - more of a general idea/guide: I quarter and stone the fruit, adding a couple of tablespoons of sugar, some vanilla bean paste (or a split whole bean if you have one) and a tiny splash of water. If I'm feeling impatient, they go on the stovetop over a low-medium heat until they collapse (a lid on the pan will quicken things further, but you will end up with a mushier finished product); on a slower-paced day I'll bake them (uncovered at around 170C) instead to retain more of the shape and texture and give a more syrupy, reduced liquid.

As for the porridge part, I will probably horrify some of you by admitting that I always cook my porridge in the microwave! Though a microwave does NOT do appropriate justice to the end result of most dishes - no matter what the manufacturers will tell you in those little 'recipe' books that accompany the machines - I make an exception for porridge as I'm generally in a huge hurry first thing and it's just plain easier without too much of a flavour compromise. I use 1/3 cup oats (normal, not quick-cook), 1/3 cup milk and 1/3 cup water - easy enough for pre-coffee brains! A couple of minutes on high, stir, then another minute or so to get the consistency you like. If you like sugar in yours, add it after the first cooking burst, although personally I prefer honey and stir it through at the end of cooking.

Enjoy your fruity, warming breakfast as is, or be especially indulgent and add a big dollop of thick Greek-style yoghurt...there's something very appealing about the cold creaminess offset against the tart, warm fruit that always wakes me up.