Archives for May 2012

Street food: has it lost its way?

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Fiona Beckett Fiona Beckett | 10:36 UK time, Wednesday, 30 May 2012

With the bank holiday to end all bank holidays coming up this weekend there’s a fair chance you’ll be out and about at a local food festival. There’s a big one coming up at London’s South Bank. But despite the perception that street food is cheap are we actually getting good value for money when we buy our lunch - or supper - off a stand?

Pop-ups and food stalls are all the rage and a great way for newcomers to break into the restaurant business but they’re not necessarily a low cost option. I recently went to a local one in my home town of Bristol and the prices for burgers were much the same as the West End of London. Without the facilities of a restaurant.

Usually there are a couple of rickety tables you can nab if you’re lucky. Otherwise it’s a question of wandering around trying to balance your lunch, your bags and your drink without squirting ketchup or hot sauce down yourself. And that’s after having to queue for 10 minutes or so.

Large pans of rice being cooked at a market

Street food can be amazing, but are vendors asking too much for it?

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Alternatives to fondant icing: part one

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Deborah Reddihough Deborah Reddihough | 13:51 UK time, Friday, 25 May 2012

Given the prevalence of fondant icing in celebration cakes it's amazing how many people hate the stuff. At weddings I frequently see guests gingerly picking off painstakingly applied icing and it comes in for a torrent of abuse online, yet it’s still by far the most common covering for wedding cakes.

There's no doubt that fondant has its advantages: it looks fantastic, photographs brilliantly and stays fresh for weeks. This goes some way towards explaining its ubiquity, but, even as a fondant fan, I understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. After all, it’s the decorative finishes you can achieve that make it outstanding, not the taste (there’s a reason it’s also called sugar paste). Even when it’s homemade and flavoured carefully the cloying taste can clash horribly with some cakes, particularly the ever popular chocolate and carrot varieties.

Simple two-tiered wedding cake

Fondant: it might look fancy but it's no winner in the taste stakes.

So, if you're making a celebration cake and you want the smooth finish of fondant but without the taste and texture, what are your options? Here are my suggestions...

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The vegetarian in the family: how to satisfy everyone

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 12:04 UK time, Tuesday, 22 May 2012

It's National Vegetarian Week. A recent survey of the vegetarian food market states that as many as 3.8 million people describe themselves as ‘mainly vegetarian’ – e.g., they eat fish – and 1.9m describe themselves as ‘strictly vegetarian’.  It’s likely that someone in your family may announce one day that they are no longer eating meat.

In the modern household there will be many different tastes and diet choices. I'm a meat-eater but (oh, am I going to say it?) some of my best friends are vegetarian. I can imagine the day when my kids push away their plates of spaghetti bolognese, and I want to be able to continue the tradition of a family meal without double the cooking.

Wild rice salad with avocado and radish

Wild rice salad - mastication enough for a meat-eater?

The majority of us should probably reduce our meat intake anyway, for cost, environmental and health reasons. A veggie in the house is a great reason to explore meat-free dishes. But how does a home cook cope with satisfying everyone?

Meet (not meat) in the middle
As a regular meat-eater, I know that I feel a little skittish and unsatisfied after a few days of veggie meals. This is probably less to do with the lack of abundant protein (we generally consume way more than we need), but I suspect it’s to do with texture.

Meat-eaters miss both the chewiness and the savouriness that comes from a bit of meat. Chewing meat slows down the consumption of dinner (unless you’re consuming some pappy fast food burger that is specifically designed to be consumed faster than the brain can register it being eaten).

Wild rice, pearl barley or bulgar wheat might seem a bit seventies, but I find they do make a dish significantly chewier. Nuts add texture to pasta dishes or salads with salty, creamy cheeses – you don’t have to go so far as a making it into a loaf. It may sound ridiculously simple, but some chargrilled ciabatta, crisp and toasty, drizzled with fruity olive oil can add bite to some grilled vegetables or a summery tomato salad. 

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From one pie lover to another...

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Anna-Louise Taylor Anna-Louise Taylor | 14:19 UK time, Friday, 18 May 2012

I’ve never been able to tell if it’s the smell or the delicate golden colour on top of a freshly baked pie that has always had me hooked – maybe it’s a combination of the two.  Or perhaps it’s the hidden mystery of the flavour concealed within that captures the imagination and makes a pie hard to resist.

Sub-standard pies became for many years “the symbol of stodgy service station fare”, says BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. "The life of pie" examines how chefs and cooks alike are rediscovering the joys of a lovingly made pastry containing top quality ingredients.

Steak pie 

The humble pie now comes in all shapes, flavours and forms, some far superior to the meat pies (minced or diced beef with gravy, onions or cheese) of my childhood in New Zealand. They are celebrated as part of “Kiwiana” culture, and are also treated to iconic status in Australian cuisine. (I say humble, but New Zealanders are incredibly proud of their pies – as evidenced by over 4,400 entries to the annual NZ Supreme Pie Awards.)

The passion for pie was brought to New Zealand from its English settlers: “Our English housewife must be skilful in pastry, and know how and in what manner to bake all sorts of meat,” wrote Gervase Markham in the English Housewife in 1615. At this time the pie was even used as the centrepiece of great tables - occasionally containing (hilariously) live frogs or blackbirds.

But the British pie goes as far back as the Middle Ages, though one of the primary purposes of pastry was simply to contain and protect the meat, according to food writer Harold McGee. Inedible pastry cases used as cooking vessels were called ‘coffyns’. And from that grim beginning grew a love of pastry and what it could do.

McGee says the word pie developed in medieval English and was the equivalent of the French word pâté – a word used to describe both blends of meat and types of pastry (as in pâté sablée). 

“Pie meant a dish of any sort, meat, fish, vegetable or fruit, enclosed in pastry,” McGee says, and the word was not to do with dough, but rather the use of odds and ends. Quite appropriate as the word pie was borrowed from a bird that makes a comfortable nest from whatever’s to hand – the magpie.

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Five low-fat ices for summer

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 13:44 UK time, Monday, 14 May 2012

Summer’s almost here (it is coming, right?) and we’re all going to start fancying a little something cold and refreshing of an afternoon.  Nothing beats a rich scoop of ice cream – but it’s not going to get you a swimsuit figure. I’m not a believer in low-fat versions of food, but I do believe that there are some frosty treats that are naturally lighter with just as much taste as the full-fat equivalent. Here are my top five.

Classic summer berry sorbet

Classic summer berry sorbet - packs a punch with very little fat.

There’s no hard and fast definition of gelato, so don’t assume that all gelatos are healthier than ice cream. On the whole, gelato tends to be made with milk and egg yolks, but not cream, making it much lower in fat. The consistency is softer, silky and less prone to freezing hard.  Some people describe the taste as ‘cleaner’, but I think the real beauty of gelato is the texture. (The custard pre-freezing is so glossy and thick, it may not make it to the churn!)

We did a taste test between chocolate ice cream and gelato from the amazingly informative Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide. We used the same quantities/types of chocolate and sugar, but the gelato used only full fat milk and two extra egg yolks, while the ice cream used double cream. Gelato more than stood up to the challenge, winning over half our office in a taste test.

Do you need an ice cream maker? No, but you won’t get such a silky texture which is as important as the flavour.

Top flavours: Chocolate, hazelnut, lemon lime, Blueberry

Cornflour ice cream

It sounds a little like cheating, but using cornflour to thicken milk instead of egg yolks really is traditional (in southern Italy, this is what they mean by ‘gelato’). This is a great ice cream to make with or for children, who can sometimes be put off by the eggy flavour of custard-based ices.

It’s about as easy as ice cream gets; gently heat 750ml milk and 100g sugar just to boiling and infuse with vanilla or other flavours, cool down a cup of the liquid and combine with a few tablespoons of cornflour to make a thin paste. Add the cornflour paste back into the warm milk and simmer until thickened. Cool completely, chill and freeze.

If you’re still worried that a corn flour thickened ice cream can’t have as much body as one containing eggs or cream, try adding a few tablespoons of milk powder (including malted milk powder or coconut milk powder) to boost the solids and absorb some of the excess water.

Do you need an ice cream maker? No, this ice cream works very well with stir freezing. Keep the ice cream in a plastic box, and use a hand-held electric whisk to break up the ice crystals every forty-five minutes until it’s set firm.

Top flavours: As a variation on the classic vanilla, you can add lemon or almond extract, puréed fruit, coconut or chocolate malt powder. Or try Atul Kochar’s pistachio kulfi (anyone found screwpine essence?)

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Stuck on you: a bakers's guide to non-stick baking

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 10:30 UK time, Wednesday, 9 May 2012

As I’m writing and testing recipes so often with loads of variations and, to be honest, failures, I have to have some things that never let me down. A fridge that always works, an oven that’s dependable (ok, the door is a bit iffy), and I aim to make sure the things I bake never, ever stick to the tins.

When I work in bakeries we use all sorts of expensive tricks: lecithin aerosol sprays, plastic film for blind-baking pastry cases, silicone baking mats or endless sheets of silicone-coated non-stick paper.

But at home, these high-end options are often not worth the expense if you’re only baking occasionally. So gleaming there in the shops temptingly, typically with a celebrity chef endorsement, is non-stick bakeware, coated with chemicals that stop some mixtures sticking to it.

The history

But before these coatings were invented, cooks tackled this sticky problem using other techniques. I spoke with food historian Ivan Day, who has looked into the history in detail.

“The Victorian chef Jules Gouffé is quite specific on how to prepare ornate baking tins,” said Ivan, “and insisted on using calves’ suet as the flavour was very neutral. Beef dripping wasn’t recommended for preparing tins for sweet cakes and pastry as it had a pronounced meatiness, though it might be mixed half-and-half with clarified butter.”

To use it, Gouffé recommends warming the tin first, spooning the melted suet in and swirling it around to coat the inside evenly before placing it on an angle to drain and allow any steam to escape. This last step is important, says Ivan, as moisture in this fat “lining” could cause the cake to stick.

Cake mould depicting the Pieta from the Alsatian museum in Strasbourg, France

Cake mould depicting the Pieta from the Alsatian museum in Strasbourg, France. Image credit: Ji-elle, Wikimedia, under a creative commons license.

Then a cupful of caster sugar would be rolled around the tin so it stuck evenly to the fat, and any excess tapped out - forming a fine layer on the fat that would seal the surface of the cake as it baked. A half-and-half mix of sifted flour and sugar was very effective, or potato starch and sugar. Then, after baking, the cakes would be left for 10 minutes before being turned out. “I know it sounds very elaborate today,” says Ivan, “but the results were often fantastic, especially if a very intricately detailed baking tin was used.”

You can still use this method today, with any fat that sets hard at room temperature, like clarified butter, lard, dripping, palm oil, coconut oil, or other vegetable fats. I prefer to use only flour as the next coating on the fat, though sugar is still useful for the inside of a soufflé dish.

Pros: this method allows you to use very complicated tin shapes and is easy to do with home ingredients.

Cons: Loads of washing up to do afterwards, and adds time to the recipe as you have to prepare the tin carefully.

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Do strawberries taste as good as they used to?

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 15:51 UK time, Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Eating a warm strawberry straight from the patch is arguably the most pleasurable aspect of a British summer. It’s not just nostalgia that makes us wonder if they just don’t taste like they used to. Are modern varieties a patch on what was grown in the past? Gardener Mark Diacono says: “New varieties are often developments and/or crosses of older varieties, bred for greater reliability and resistance to disease. Flavour is often lost in that process.”

But as a heritage crop, strawberries are a bit of an outlier – it’s not one that always supports the ‘older is better’ hypothesis.  It’s taken a lot of time and effort to cultivate a tasty berry – like the fruit of Tantalus, the perfect strawberry always seems just out of reach.

But first, a little history lesson.  For thousands of years, Europeans had been gobbling up one type of strawberry: the wild Fragaria vesca, tiny, but highly-flavoured with hints of clove and grape. The demand for cultivation was clear: strawberries had been the prize of French and English kings. (Henry VIII himself having paid as much for 250g of the fruit as was paid for a portrait of Jane Seymour by Holbein.)

Fragaria vesca drawing

Wild strawberry drawing, Conrad Gessner 1555-65 (Photo by Roland zh, via Wikimedia Commons)

Upon the discovery of the Americas came the arrival in Europe of two new types of wild strawberry - the Fragaria virginiana from North America and the Fragaria chileonsis from South America.  Both were larger, but a mixed bag in terms of flavour.

How fortunate that in the early 1780s, a fluke cross-breed of the two American varieties was created from interplanting in the French botanical gardens. These two plants become mother and father to nearly all of our modern cultivars - the Fragaria x ananassa, or ‘pineapple’ strawberry.

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What makes coffee exceptional?

Suzy Mckeever Suzy Mckeever | 10:09 UK time, Tuesday, 1 May 2012

“Today I want to ask a question. What makes coffee exceptional?” Thus opened Maxwell Colonna Dashwood in his winning presentation to the judges of the UK Barista Championships at the London Coffee Festival this weekend. It’s a good question, and one which takes quite some answering.

Colonna Dashwood answered it on the day with a series of superlative espressos, cappuccinos and his ‘signature drink’ for the competition: a Rwandan espresso served alongside freshly squeezed ruby grapefruit juice and a spice infusion of liquorice root and star anise. The first to “tone [the] acidity down and to highlight the caramel in the coffee  -  the floral becomes hoppy”, and the second “to bring those tart, sharp, fruity notes back to the cup.” The tasting process is as exacting as every aspect of exceptional coffee: the sourcing, the roasting, the brewing, the serving.  The myriad flavour notes mimic the complexities of the relationships between the farmers, producers, importers, roasters and baristas. When we decided we wanted to know more about exceptional coffee, we had no idea the depths we were getting into.

Maxwell Colonna Dashwood presenting to the UK Barista Championship judges

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