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#10 – Eat at a top Michelin star restaurant

I saved myself a treat for the last of my 40 before 40, and I was so excited to be spending the last day of my 30s dining in style.  Given my love of food, enjoying my first three Michelin star experience was a perfect start to my birthday celebrations.

There are only 4 three star restaurants in the UK:  Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester in London, and The Fat Duck and the Waterside Inn at Bray in Berkshire.  I selected the Waterside Inn, which describes itself as a ‘restaurant with rooms’, because I was attracted by its promise of a relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere.  I wanted to enjoy great food and fantastic service without feeling uncomfortable or patronised.

The Waterside Inn, Bray

The Waterside Inn was opened in 1972 by brothers Albert and Michel Roux.  It gained its first Michelin star in 1974, added a second in 1977 and was finally awarded a coveted third star in 1985.  It is the only restaurant in the UK to have held three stars for over 30 years.  It is currently run by Michel’s son, Alain Roux, a pastry chef.  Alain is only one of three UK based chefs to have been invited to become a Master Pâtissier in the International Association Relais Desserts, demonstrating how highly thought of he is in his field.  This honour marks him as one of the world’s best Pâtissiers.

I decided to do this in style, so I booked us a room for the night along with dinner.  On arrival, we checked in and I was delighted to find that our room had a four poster bed.  I’ve never stayed in one before, so that was very special.

Four poster bed

Once it was time for dinner, we were shown in to the dining room and given a table with views of the River Thames on three sides.

Thames side at the Waterside Inn

As you would expect, every detail was attended to.  There was a little ‘footstool’ next to the table on which to place my handbag so that it wasn’t on the floor, every time a glass was emptied it was whisked away immediately and appropriate cutlery was delivered with each course and cleared once we’d finished eating.

Dressed for dinner, ready to experience three Michelin starred cuisine

To dine, we opted for the seven course ‘Menu Exceptionnel’:

Flaked Devon crab with ginger scented cucumber jelly and oscietra caviar

Pan-fried escalopes of foie gras Grenoble style with caramelized slices of orange

Fillet of turbot flavoured with marjoram and roasted in a nut-brown butter, root vegetables and morels, “vin jaune” sauce

A choice of:

Saddle of milk lamb stuffed with morels, served with baby vegetables and a minted hollandaise sauce

Or

Grilled pigeon breasts and crispy leg served with sweet pepper piperade and a potato terrine, devil sauce

Chocolate cannelé with hazelnut praline and lime

Warm rhubarb soufflé enhanced with raspberries

Café et mignardises

 

I chose the lamb as my main course and David chose the pigeon so we were able to sample both dishes.

With this menu we enjoyed a flight of five paired wines; a white with the crab, a sweet botrytis with the foie gras, a champagne with the turbot, a red with the main course and a dessert wine.

The Waterside Inn, Menu exceptionnel and wine pairings

The Menu

The restaurant does not permit photography, so there are no pictures of the dishes.  I’ll have to do my best to describe them for you.

The seven courses were not the whole story!  We chose to have kir royale as an aperitif, before starting the evening with canapes, beautifully presented on a rectangular white dish with a carved beetroot rose.  We had a cube of pulled pork terrine, a smoked salmon and cream cheese dome and an anchovy puff pastry twist.  Small bread rolls were served to us from a bread basket made from actual plaited dough, followed by an amuse bouche of cauliflower soup with a king prawn, served in a miniature tureen.

The crab was served as a small compressed disc topped with the caviar and centred on the cucumber gel.  I would not normally choose crab but it was beautifully subtle and the flavour of the cucumber gel was amazingly intense.  It was served with a spiced tuile biscuit, which made an excellent platform for the crab.

The foie gras was my favourite course of the evening.  It was served pan fried and was meltingly soft.  Combined with the sweet citrus of the caramelised orange and a bitter orange sauce it was one of the best things I have ever eaten.  The botrytis dessert wine with which it was paired was the perfect complement for the dish.  Absolutely outstanding, and hugely memorable.

Had I been choosing from the a la carte menu, I would have been unlikely to choose the turbot, as I generally avoid fish when eating out, but it was a pleasant dish, especially paired with the blanc de blanc champagne.  The amazing attention to detail continued here with a small stack of perfectly circular alternate discs of carrot and celeriac, with diced morels in the centre of the stack.

My lamb main course was also excellent.  Lovely soft lamb served just pink with perfectly turned miniature vegetables arranged beautifully on the plate.  The minted hollandaise which accompanied the dish was another favourite part of the evening.  The flavours were excellent together.  David enjoyed his pigeon dish, but as I suspected the ‘devil sauce’ was a touch too hot for me.

Before the desserts were served, we were given a palette cleanser of basil sorbet with passionfruit mousse.  Once again the flavours were amazingly concentrated for such a tiny morsel, with the sweetness of the sorbet contrasting brilliantly with the sharpness of the passionfruit.

Then came the chocolate cannele.  This was my second favourite dish of the evening.  A thin chocolate shell, filled with a light hazelnut praline mousse served with just a few tiny caramelised hazelnuts to give a little crunch.  It was absolutely delicious.

The meal finished with the soufflé which was, as you would expect, perfect.  A lovely toasted pink, standing an inch or so proud of the dish, it sighed gently as the top was pierced for the sauce to be poured in.  As we ate our desserts, a firework display started upstream so it was beautiful to watch the fireworks going off and the colours reflecting in the river.

Before coffee we were served a praline milk chocolate selected from a box of chocolates brought round to the table.  It was literally a box made of chocolate, and looked like a treasure chest filled with dark, milk and white chocolates.

I was treated to a small slice of coffee flavoured opera cake, delivered with a candle and the words ‘Happy Birthday’ elegantly piped onto the plate.  Everything was done with such precision and care.

We chose to accompany coffee with a glass of port, and finished the evening with the beautiful little petit fours served on a small tiered silver stand which included a palmier, an intense chocolate truffle, a miniature lemon madeleine, a tiny raspberry financier, a small traditional sponge cannele and a mint macaron.

We were thoroughly full by then and grateful that we had only to walk upstairs to get to bed.  We found more chocolates awaiting us but I’ve had to bring those home as we couldn’t eat another thing!

As a restaurant with rooms, a continental breakfast is served to your room in the morning.  I couldn’t think of a better way to start my 40th birthday than with breakfast in bed:

Breakfast in bed

The croissants were gloriously buttery and the pastries included gently spiced ever so soft hot cross buns in honour of it being Good Friday.  The pear and rhubarb compote was a welcome addition being sweet and soft and a lovely contrast to the excesses of the pastries.

Pear and rhubarb compote at the Waterside Inn

I felt thoroughly welcomed, relaxed and indulged during my stay, and I’m pleased to have completed the final on of my 40 before 40 challenges in style.  A great start my weekend of birthday celebrations.

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#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge: Recipe 48 – Beef Wellington (and CHALLENGE COMPLETE!)

For my final recipe of this challenge I felt I had better do something worthy of being the recipe on which the task concluded; something technically challenging, something I was a little scared of, something I wouldn’t have attempted when I started this challenge four years ago.  Beef Wellington definitely fitted the bill.  It’s a dream dish (for meat eaters anyway) but it’s also notoriously difficult to cook.  There is no way of checking whether it’s cooked through apart from cutting it open and once it’s cut open you can’t cook it any more without turning it into a totally different dish.  And as if that’s not bad enough there’s the perennial problem of the soggy bottom to contend with…

As this challenge has above all taught me to research recipes and read around the method rather than just grabbing a recipe and jumping straight in to trying it, I was grateful to find this Guardian post evaluating different recipes and methods and giving some sound advice on what to do (and more importantly, what not to do):

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/dec/08/how-to-cook-perfect-beef-wellington

Of course, I also checked out a number of other recipes by chefs whom one assumes know what they’re doing (Raymond Blanc, Delia, Michel Roux, Gordon Ramsey for example) but actually I came back to the Guardian’s in the end.

There were two key decisions involved in making the Wellington:

  • crepes or no crepes, and
  • homemade or shop bought pastry

I was so worried about the soggy bottom I decided for crepes and bought ready-made pancakes reasoning they would be thinner than anything I could make.  I also decided for ready made puff pastry in the interests of saving time.  (Frankly, I can and have made puff pastry before and I had a busy week.  There was no need to demonstrate that I can do that, again.)  The advice about getting a good quality all butter puff pastry was worth listening to but finding one proved more tricky.  Most of the supermarket puffs (and indeed Jus-Rol which you might assume to be a leader in the field) are made with margarine.  Eventually however, I eventually tracked down all butter puff in M&S.  (If desperate, I imagine Waitrose probably sell it too.)

Difficult decisions over, the first step in making the Wellington was to make the mushroom duxelle.  I fried off chopped onion and mushrooms in a not inconsiderable amount of butter, adding a couple of tablespoons of double cream at the end.  I chose to use chestnut, shitake and porcini mushrooms, with the tiniest drizzle of truffle oil as well.

The beef fillet I had bought from my local butcher  (who I totally trust to not only give me meat with a good provenance but also exactly the right cut for what I’m doing), and it was indeed a beautiful piece of meat – just look at that marbling:

Beautifully marbled beef fillet and mushroom duxelle

The fillet simply had to be seared in a pan of hot vegetable oil and left to cool.  I was very careful to ensure that both the duxelle and the fillet were totally cool before I tried to assemble the Wellington – pastry likes to be cool and any warmth at this stage would simply melt the pastry, meaning it wouldn’t puff.  (You’ve seen panicking cooks on Bake Off because their pastry was melting.  Well, that wasn’t going to be me.)

Then came assembly time.  I looked at the bought pancakes.  They looked really thick.  I thought about the comments in the Guardian article about the pancakes not being pleasant to eat but the meat-juice-soaked-buttery pastry being extremely pleasant to eat and, at the very last minute, decided against the pancakes.  This gave me a bit of an assembly problem as I had been intending to follow the Michel Roux method and use the pancakes to wrap the fillet with the duxelle and chill down so it firmed up.  But without the pancakes this was nigh on impossible.  Instead I simply unrolled the pastry, spread the duxelle onto it, placed the beef fillet on top and attempted to roll up the pastry in much the same way as you roll a Swiss roll.

Attempting to roll the Beef Wellington

Spreading out the mushroom duxelle

This is not a method I would recommend.

The pastry very quickly came up to room temperature, started melting and became very sticky.  (Yes, I know, Bake Off and panicking bakers….  I was there.)  It was impossible to turn the Wellington over so I ended up with the seam on top.  Nevertheless, it needed to go into the oven before it melted any more, so I rapidly egg washed it, sealed the ends and popped it to cook.

It was then a waiting game….

Waiting for the cooking time to elapse….

Waiting for the Wellington to rest….

Delivering the Wellington to the table…

Beef Wellington – the moment of truth

Taking a deep breath, offering up a short prayer and cutting the Wellington…

Relief!  The pastry was beautifully crisp on top and made a satisfying crunchy noise as it was sliced.  The very bottom super thin layer was also crisp, and the pastry above it had soaked up the meat juices and turned beautifully oozy whilst still being cooked.  Best of all, the meat was stunningly pink.

My perfect Beef Wellington

I was immensely proud of this magnificent Wellington.

I served it with a simple mustard mash and steamed spinach as I had decided the much lauded accompaniment of dauphinoise potatoes would be too rich.  I think I was right.  The Wellington was amazing, but boy, was it rich.  The beef literally melted in the mouth – no need for a knife to cut it, it pulled apart with a fork (thanks butcher).  The mushrooms were tasty, the pastry was great.  I went back for a second helping and ate far more than I reasonably should have.  Yes, it could have been presented better and I wish I had had time to chill the prepared Wellington before cooking it (and got the seam underneath) but the taste was absolutely bang on.

So, there it is.  Recipe 48, challenge complete!  Definitely going out on a high with this one.

Scores for my Beef Wellington:

Healthiness – 2/10 (There’s a few mushrooms in this but it’s all about the red meat, butter, pastry…  Basically it’s hugely calorific, especially if you eat as much as I did!)

Ease of prep – 7/10 (Actually easier than I thought it would be, especially using ready made puff pastry.  Would definitely have benefitted from more chilling time though)

Flavour/taste – 10/10 (Absolutely stunning, I wouldn’t change a thing if I made this again)

It’s difficult to believe that I’ve been working on this challenge every month for the last four years and I’ve actually done it – 48 new recipes made, new ingredients experimented with and new techniques learnt.  During that time this challenge has led me down so many new avenues as I initially realised my limitations, then found ways to learn and be more adventurous.  It’s made me try new foods, expand the repertoire of cuisines I cook, and made me far less fussy about what I eat.  It’s introduced me to a group of ‘Cooking Friends’ I can turn to for all manner of foodie questions and inspiration, it’s made me take cookery classes and it’s made me join a Cake Club.  In short it has expanded my diet, expanded my knowledge and expanded my circle of friends – both real and virtual.  It’s been so much more than just 48 new recipes, and although it was originally one of the more prosaic challenges it’s one I am so pleased I set it for myself because it has literally changed my life and will continue to do so.  So many more recipes to try and techniques to test!  The one thing it was meant to do and hasn’t in any way actually done is reduced the huge pile of ‘recipes to try’ lurking in my kitchen – if anything I’ve added to it.  But never mind, it’s been a great ride and hopefully my cooking will continue to go from strength to strength.

 

#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge: Recipe 47 – Fisherman’s Pie

I’m nearing the end of this challenge now – just two recipes to go, so I thought I really had better do something different this time and push myself a bit farther out of my comfort zone.  46 recipes so far; 25 savoury, 21 sweet, a variety of new ingredients and new techniques sampled, largely successfully.  But, not one single one of those 46 recipes has featured fish.

Four years ago when I started this challenge I wouldn’t eat fish (or indeed any form of seafood) in pretty much any format other than fish fingers.  Even the smell of fish made me gag, there was no way I was going to put it in my mouth.  In my world, going to the fish and chip shop for tea actually meant chicken pie and chips for tea.  I blame the fish van which used to come to our village on Fridays and sell Mum bright yellow smoked haddock which we’d then have to have for dinner.  I’m sure it probably wasn’t actually every Friday of my childhood, but it felt like it.  As soon as I had a choice about what I was eating, fish was out.

However, when I booked my trip to Japan (Challenge 2), I realised it would be sensible to train myself to eat at least some fish and seafood in order to properly experience Japanese cuisine, and then the Chinese and Thai cookery course I took for Challenge 33 introduced me to cooking with prawns.  After that I got really brave and on two occasions have actually ordered fish in restaurants (always a risk because if you don’t like it you’ve still got to pay for it).  Most recently I had Gurnard in a Bacon and Mussel Sauce from River Cottage Canteen.  It was absolutely to die for.  (I’m still scared of fish if it has a head and tail mind you, mainly because I have no idea what to do with it, and having tried both mussels and oysters I’m sticking with prawns!  But at least I’ve given a few more things a go.)

I do occasionally cook a cod fillet at home when I am trying to eat very low calorie meals and am fed up with chicken, but in that case I generally drown it in a ratatouille so I can’t actually taste the fish.  For this month’s recipe however, I wanted to choose a dish that made the fish the star.  I turned to a classic; a good, old fashioned Fisherman’s Pie and of course it had to be a Delia recipe I followed for such a traditional dish.

A cheffy friend gave me three tips when I mentioned that I was going to be making a fish pie.  They were:

1 – Poach the fish in milk to cook them then use that milk to make the béchamel sauce.

2 – Smoked haddock is a must.

3 – Dot cubes of mozzarella amongst the fish sauce before you put the mash on top.

Fish fillets ready to be poached

Fish fillets ready to be poached

I was relieved to see the Delia recipe (taken from her Complete Cookery Course) did indeed require me to poach the fish in milk and then use that milk for the béchamel, but smoked haddock?  My childhood nemesis….  I decided that if I was pushing myself I might as well do it properly, so smoked haddock was in – along with cod and hake.

Assembling the pie was actually quite time consuming with lots of processes required.  It reminded me a little of putting together a lasagne in that there was quite a lot of work to get through before really getting anywhere; the fish had to be cooked through, the potatoes and eggs boiled, potatoes mashed and a béchamel sauce made all before actually starting on the construction of the pie itself.  None of those processes were especially difficult though, so I worked my way through them and was then ready to start assembling my pie.

First the sauce in the bottom, complete with prawns, the flaked fish, parsley, and chopped boiled eggs.

The base for the Fisherman's Pie

The base for the Fisherman’s Pie

Here I deviated slightly from the recipe.  I left out the capers in Delia’s recipe because I think they’re a dominant flavour and I suspected they would overpower it, and I added the cubed mozzarella as suggested by my friend, basically on the grounds that I really don’t think it’s possible to have too much cheese so adding it to a recipe isn’t going to do anything other than improve it.

Fisherman's Pie - ready to go into the oven (with super neat mashed potato topping)

Fisherman’s Pie – ready to go into the oven (with super neat mashed potato topping)

Next I had to layer the mash over the top, smooth it out and (for some reason) pattern it with a knife.  Since I knew I’d be photographing it, I made a special effort to make it neat.  I hope you’re suitably impressed.

All that remained was to scatter over some grated Cheddar cheese and then bake it.

I was rather pleased with how it turned out.  Nicely browned on top without being burnt (a minor miracle with my appalling oven):

 

The finished Fisherman's Pie

The finished Fisherman’s Pie

I served it simply with steamed broccoli, and we loved it.  It was oozy, creamy, comforting…  I’m really pleased that the recipe generated a huge quantity so there are now several portions in the freezer to treat myself to another day.  A great success for my first proper attempt at cooking fish, and I even enjoyed the smoked haddock.  Perhaps I’ll try a few more fish recipes in future.

Scores for this one are:

Healthiness – 5/10 (Yes, the fish is good for you but there’s A LOT of butter and potato in this recipe)

Ease of prep – 5/10 (The processes aren’t difficult, there’s just quite a lot of them so it takes a bit of time)

Flavour/taste – 10/10 (Just sooooooooo good.  Proper comfort food)

The actual recipe I used isn’t available online, but this one shares the same base.  Don’t forget to add the mozzarella!  http://www.myhungryfriends.com/fish-pie/

#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge: Recipe 46 – Tarte Tatin

Part of the reason for setting myself this challenge of trying to cook new recipe every month was because there are a number of classic recipes which I have never attempted because I am a bit scared of them.  I thought this challenge might force me to give them a go.  Tarte Tatin was one such.  It’s French, it sounds fancy, I have an idea you need special Tatin tin.  All of which is screaming ‘difficult’ to me.  However, I’ve always been a bit intrigued by a Tatin and in that vein, I even wrote it on a (very short) list of recipes I wanted to try and tackle during this challenge.  And here we are, up to Recipe 46 of 48, and I still haven’t attempted a Tarte Tatin…  This month it was time to try.

If I think of a Tarte Tatin, I instantly think apple, and apparently that is the classic flavour.  I erroneously assumed that Tatin was in some way French for ‘apple’, but it turns out that Tatin was simply the surname of the proprietors of Hotel Tatin, which is credited with either inventing or popularising the dish (depending on whose account you believe).  A quick recipe search however, reveals a number of interesting sounding variations, both sweet and savoury, on the Tarte Tatin theme; ‘Plum and Marzipan’ or ‘Red Onion’ both caught my eye.  But I was running before I could walk.  I needed to try a classic apple Tarte Tatin first and as luck would have it my copy of Nigel Slater’s Real Good Food had a recipe in it.  And, even better, Nigel expressly told me that I didn’t need a specific Tatin tin and could use a normal cake tin or even, in extremis, a frying pan.

Making a Tarte Tatin sounded simple enough.  Make the caramel with butter and sugar, add the apples, top with pastry, then bake.  Pastry isn’t a problem for me and Nigel’s recipe used an enriched shortcrust (with egg yolks and sugar added) so that was easy to put together.  Caramelising the butter and sugar was a bit more tricky though.  I couldn’t remember whether you’re supposed to stir it or not supposed to stir it and Nigel didn’t include any instructions on this point.

I stirred it.

I suspect I shouldn’t have done.

Nigel’s recipe called for a golden caramel.  By the time I’d finished wondering why mine was taking hours and turned the heat up to make it melt quicker it was decidedly brown.  I was worried it would be burnt and bitter but a quick taste test once it had cooled and it didn’t seem to be, so I pressed on.  (As an aside, I made the caramel in a saucepan and poured it into the cake tin as I wasn’t entirely convinced a cake tin could take the heat of the hob without warping.  It didn’t seem to affect the end result.)

Apples and Caramel

Apples and Caramel

Arranging the apples atop the caramel was simple enough, as was rolling out a disc of pastry, draping it over the apples and tucking it in around the edges before popping the whole thing into the oven.  I’ll admit to being a bit nervous turning it out but it had shrunk away from the edges of the tin and didn’t look like it would stick, so I plonked a plate over it and bravely inverted it.

E voila!  Apple Tart Tatin

The finished article - Apple Tarte Tatin

The finished article – Apple Tarte Tatin

Served up with a little crème fraiche, it even looked reasonably respectable.

It tasted much as I expected it would.  I was not delighted by the pastry, which I felt was a little heavy.  In fact, there is a degree of debate about whether a Tatin should use shortcrust or puff pastry, and I think based on this particular recipe I would possibly come down on the side of puff pastry.  I also think it would have been good to have slightly more oozy caramel as the tarte wasn’t as sticky as I had hoped it might be.  But, I had made a Tarte Tatin and it hadn’t been anywhere near as difficult as I thought it might be.  I might even be encouraged to give it another go and try some other flavours.

The recipe I used isn’t available online, but this excellent article reviews the different methods of making a Tarte Tatin and gives a great sounding recipe to try, should you wish to give it a go yourself:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/oct/20/how-to-cook-perfect-tarte-tatin

My scores for the particular recipe I used (from Nigel Slater’s Real Good Food) are:

Healthiness – 2/10 (Yes, OK, it’s got fruit in it but it’s also got so much butter, sugar and pastry that I don’t even want to think about the calorie and fat count!)

Ease of Prep  – 5/10 (Pretty easy to do if you’re OK with pastry, especially since it turns out you don’t actually need a special tin.  Just don’t burn your caramel.)

Flavour/taste – 7/10 (It was good but not amazing.  I’ve made better desserts.  It did also taste great cold the following day thought.)

#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge – Recipe 45: Meringue Wreath

A lovely festive recipe this month, taken from the BBC Good Food website.  I chose this one because when I was invited to join a friend for an unconventional Christmas Day lunch of Beef Wellington (which she cooked beautifully), I offered to take along a dessert.  Something other than the traditional Christmas Pudding was preferred so I decided to make a Meringue Wreath.  Light, fruity and pretty as well, it fitted the bill perfectly.

Luckily for me, the meringue could happily be baked two to three days ahead which was extremely useful amidst the chaos of Christmas preparations.  It was very simple to whisk up the meringue with my electric hand mixer and as I made it up in the evening, I could cook it for its allotted 90 minutes and simply leave it to dry out in the cooling oven overnight. (Apparently this is done because meringues essentially need to dry out rather more than bake so long exposure to low heat is best.)  In the morning, I wrapped it in cling film and stashed it safely out of harm’s way (in the spare room!) so that it wouldn’t get broken whilst I was doing lots of other Christmas cooking in the kitchen.

On Christmas Day itself all I had to do was actually decorate the meringue.  I simply added a dob of whipped cream to the top of each of the meringue blobs, then peeled and sliced the clementines, sweetened the cranberries slightly by briefly cooking them with some sugar (I did add a little water to the pan as well as I was worried I’d end up with a solid cranberry caramel otherwise), chopped the pistachios and arranged the fruit and nuts onto the cream.

Meringue Wreath with clementines, cranberries and pistachios

Meringue Wreath with clementines, cranberries and pistachios

I loved the jewel bright colours of this particular recipe; it really did look like a Christmas wreath.  The combination of clementines and cranberries resulted in lovely Christmassy flavours but of course you could substitute any fruit you prefer.  Berries would work well too, perhaps with some mint leaves to add a touch of greenery.  The one tip I would give you is:  don’t make the meringue bigger than any serving plate you own!  The fact that I had done this made it rather difficult to transport the wreath to my friend’s house, and also to serve it.  At one point I thought I was going to have to serve it on the baking sheet I cooked it on!  Fortunately I managed just about to squish it onto a plate without breaking it too much.  I had used a standard size plate as the template for the meringue, but of course it spread slightly when it cooked.  I realised that what I should have done when spooning the meringue mix onto the baking parchment was to ensure the circle template I was using was at the outside of the meringue blobs, not place the meringue mix on the middle of the line.

If you’re not a fan of Christmas pudding, or want a light dessert to include in a Christmas buffet, this recipe is ideal.  Here’s the link in case you want to try it:  http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/clementine-cranberry-pistachio-meringue-wreath-0

I think it would also be possible to adapt this recipe to make little individual wreaths, but in that case it would probably be best to pipe the meringue in small circles onto the baking sheet, rather than blobbing it on as it would be hard to create a good shape.

Scores for this recipe are:

Healthiness – 6/10 (Meringue contains a lot less calories than most other Christmas desserts, even with the cream on top, and of course there’s the fruit too so you’re getting some of your five a day)

Ease of prep – 9/10 (Perfect for this busy time of year – meringue is not complicated to make and since it can be prepared well in advance and simply topped on the day it’s very easy.  Just be careful how big you make it!)

Flavour/taste –10/10 (I really enjoyed this.  Lovely and light, tasty festive flavours and it looked brilliant too)

This recipe is definitely a keeper, and may well become a regular feature of my future Christmases.

#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge: Recipe 44 – Chicken Liver Parfait

The idea for this month’s recipe was born when the other half and I went out for dinner and he ordered Chicken Liver Parfait as a starter.  This led to a conversation about the difference between a pâté and a parfait, which neither of us knew.  I thought it would be to do with the ingredients – parfait is usually lighter and more mousse-like in texture, so I assumed it had cream added and was perhaps whisked to make it less dense.

But apparently not.  Some pâté recipes have cream in, some don’t.  Some websites suggest that a parfait is simply a pâté that is passed through a sieve to make it very smooth – whether before or after cooking.  There also seems to be a debate about whether a pâté is cooked before it is assembled or afterwards e.g. is the method to cook the ingredients, blend the mixture (and possibly pass it through a sieve) before leaving it to set, or is the method to blend the ingredients, then cook the mixture in a bain marie.  I came to the conclusion that basically both pâtés and parfaits are cooked first then set in the fridge, and anything which is blended before being cooked and set in a bain marie is actually a terrine.  If you want to really confuse yourself though, check out this post:  http://nandchef.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/definition-of-pate-and-terrines.html

As I’d spent so long looking this up and reading different pâté recipes I thought I’d have a go at making one.  It’s a good choice for the 48 Recipe Challenge because not only is it a method I’ve not used before, it’s also a new ingredient for me.  Normally I won’t eat offal so I’ve never cooked with it but for some reason I have a particular love for Chicken Liver pâté.  In addition to my dislike of offal, I had an idea that pâtés were difficult and time consuming to make, but having read through various recipes, it seemed that actually is wasn’t as difficult to do as I had imagined it might be.

Having tried it, I can safely say it certainly was not easy.  Well, actually that’s not entirely fair.  It wasn’t a difficult process per se, but it was time consuming.  I had to trim the sinew off the livers (not a pleasant job, they’re really slimy), chop the shallots, crush the garlic, fry the livers, melt the butter to soften the onions and garlic in, deglaze the pan with brandy, add chopped herbs and blend the lot.  As I had decided to make a parfait, I then needed to pass the mixture through a sieve.  After 15 minutes of that and getting nowhere fast, I soon got bored; so out of five assorted sized ramekins I have managed to produce one of chicken liver parfait and four of chicken liver pâté…

Then I had to make the jelly for the top.  Often pâtés are topped with butter but I’d found this recipe: http://pleasedontkissthecook.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/chicken-liver-pate-better-late-than.html using a port jelly instead, which I thought sounded good.  Pâté does need to be sealed with something (either butter or a jelly) because otherwise the surface oxidises, which both makes it go grey and therefore look unappetising but also affects the taste.  I’m pleased to report that the jelly was very simple to make and poured easily onto the surface of the pâté before setting well in the fridge.

Chicken livers being flambéd with brandy

Chicken livers being flambéd with brandy

As you may have guessed, I didn’t enjoy the process of making the pâté.  The part where I had to flambé the brandy to burn the alcohol off was fun, but I really disliked handling the chicken livers and everything took soooo long.  What initially seemed a simple, straightforward recipe actually took me over 3 hours to complete, including the clearing up (and this does use quite a bit of equipment).  If I’d continued with the ‘passing through a sieve’ lark to make it all into parfait I reckon it would have easily taken another hour at least!  Even getting the pâté into the ramekins was challenging – it went all up the sides and was very difficult to smooth off.

Untidy Chicken Liver Pâté in ramekins

Untidy Chicken Liver Pâté in ramekins

So, my conclusion on this recipe is that I probably wouldn’t bother again.  It took a lot of time, made a lot of mess and therefore is only worth it in my book if it produces something which tastes amazing.  On the day I made it, this pâté was very dry and dense, and particularly ‘livery’.  (When I say dry, think of that peculiar dryness that comes from fresh cranberries, where it sort of sucks all the moisture out of your mouth.)  The pâté also had that really noticeable metallic tang that is everything I don’t like about offal.  I was really disappointed, having put all that effort in.

The recipe said that the pâté improved with age, so on the following day I gamely gave it another go and to my surprise it was slightly more palatable; somehow less drying and less liver-y.  Fingers crossed this trend continues over the next couple of days, otherwise given my dislike of offal, and the fact that I haven’t noticed a pronounced livery taste with commercial liver pâtés (which I actually really enjoy), unless this one improves dramatically in a short space of time I think I’ll stick with shop bought in future!  (The port jelly is really good though, and the sweetness cuts through the dryness of the pâté.)

Chicken Liver Parfait with Port Jelly

Chicken Liver Parfait with Port Jelly

Scores for this one are:

Healthiness – 5/10 (not necessarily unhealthy but just under 300 calories a ramekin for what is essentially a side dish or starter is quite a lot, and that’s before you add any bread to spread it on)

Ease of prep – 3/10 (I really didn’t like handling the liver and there was a lot of equipment to clear up afterwards)

Flavour/taste – 4/10 (perhaps it was just this particular recipe but this is shaping up to be much too livery for me, far more so than commercial chicken liver pâtés)

#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge: Recipe 43 – Beef Cobbler, the way my Mum makes it

This month’s recipe is a load of cobblers!  Beef cobbler, to be exact.  My Mum makes an amazing beef cobbler and it was one of my favourite dinners when I was a child.  Yet, strangely, I’ve never made one myself.  Perhaps because it’s traditional, good, solid English-style food and funnily enough I don’t cook a lot of that.  Meat and two veg dishes are not my forte, and I really struggle with a roast.  I like dishes which all go in one pot – but actually, that means a cobbler is ideal.  Why have I never made one before?

Cobblers can be sweet or savoury, consisting of either fruit or a stew topped with little dumplings or scones.  The origins of the name seem to have been lost in the mists of time, but it may be because the topping resembles cobblestones.  All the recipes I found for beef cobbler, whether online or in some of the older cookbooks I have, used scones as toppings, but my Mum always makes her cobbler top with dumplings, so that’s what I did too.

In my view, this is the best way to have dumplings.  I don’t like them when they’re fully immersed in the stew and go all slimy.  But in a cobbler you get the best of both worlds:  dumplings which are soft underneath because they’ve soaked up the gravy, yet browned and crisp on top.  Making dumplings instead of scones to top the cobbler also gave me the opportunity to cook with suet, a rather old-fashioned ingredient which I haven’t used before.

Retro cooking from the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook

Retro cooking from the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook

For this retro recipe, I combined Mum’s advice with the trusty 1970s Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook  (I’m sure every home had one), which has lots of recipes for dishes involving dumplings and simply made up some dumplings using self-raising flour, suet, a pinch of salt, some chopped parsley and cold water.

The dumplings were quick and easy to put together, and cooked by just popping them onto the stew base once that had had sufficient cooking time.  It works because the liquid in the stew steams and makes the topping rise.  The dumplings themselves only need about 15-20 minutes cooking time – the last five minutes with the lid off to ensure they brown and crisp up nicely on top.

The great thing about cobbler is that it can be used to top any stew – just make sure there’s a fair bit of liquid as you need that to steam the dumplings and ensure a good rise.  I used a Beef in Beer recipe (another 70s classic) which I love, but you could use any type of stew you like; lamb, beef, chicken, vegetable…

Beef Cobbler - with suet dumplings, the way my Mum makes it

Beef Cobbler – with suet dumplings, the way my Mum makes it

My Beef Cobbler was very tasty and as stodgy comfort food was just perfect for the chillier evenings at this time of year.  I shall do it again.

As my recipe was somewhat ‘cobbled together’ (groan!) I can’t share it exactly with you, but here are links to a couple of relevant recipes so you can cobble together a cobbler as well.

A beef cobbler with scones recipe so you can see how a cobbler works:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/beef_cobbler_with_79871

A stew and dumplings recipe so you can make the dumplings (although to be honest there is likely to be a recipe on the side of the suet packet):  http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/recipes/537500/james-martin-s-beef-stew-with-dumplings

Alternatively, just dig out a 1970s recipe book, or ask your Mum!

Scores for this one are:

Healthiness – 7/10 (a good solid meal – not especially healthy but not unhealthy either.  Replace the beef suet with vegetable suet if you prefer, or make scones instead)

Ease of prep – 7/10 (It takes a little while to assemble the stew base but the dumplings are not difficult to make)

Flavour/taste – 10/10 (especially if you use a casserole recipe you love as the base)