Friday, 20 February 2009

Wet Pear, Almond and Polenta Cake

Think of a British cake and images of afternoon tea and sponge come to mind. Just a basic Victoria with a thin layer of raspberry jam and a dusting of icing sugar is the perfect accompaniment to a good old cuppa.

There aren't any cakes I can think of that I dislike and although I will always hold a special place for our own concoctions of nothing more than eggs, sugar, butter and flour, I've grown to love some of our European cakes a little more. The more wet the better; think of Greek honey cake or a Turkish Baklava. Those things are moist and heavy and entail plenty of finger licking afterwards.

At a decent Italian restaurant some years back I had a delicious lemon and polenta cake. Crispy outer layer thanks to the polenta leading to a lemon syrup sponge, it was a memorable end to the meal. So memorable that I've tried to make that very cake several times with varying degrees of success.

Using the same techniques, which entails stewing fruit into a purée or boiling lemons or oranges whole before puréeing, I've tried all kinds of fruit. You will always be guaranteed a moist cake flavoured heavily with your choice of fruit. This one uses pears, one of my favourite fruit. Go for pears that are almost on the edge of going off and you will have an incredibly fragrant yet subtle tasting cake.

Wet Pear, Almond and Polenta Cake

200g butter
150g sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
3 eggs
100g ground almonds
100g polenta
100g self raising flour
200g pear puree, made from 4-5 pears, peeled and chopped and softened in a little water

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180C, GM4.
2 - In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Stir in the vanilla essence and then stir in the eggs one by one.
3 - Fold in the almonds and polenta. Sieve in the flour and fold in. Finally, fold in the pear purée.
4 - Pour into a lined cake tin with a removable base. Bake on the centre shelf for 50-60 minutes until golden brown. If it starts to catch too soon, cover loosely with baking paper.
5 - Rest and allow to cool.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Smoky Jerusalem Artichoke and Ginger Soup

February is proving to be as miserable as it generally succeeds in being. Not only has this recession become a scary reality, we are also going through the coldest snap of weather we have seen in years. It's dark, cold and miserable and I for one cannot wait to see March in a couple of week’s time.

To add to this, it is also a poor month for edible produce. Aside from early forced rhubarb and winter staples such as potatoes, onions, leeks and swedes, British fruit and vegetable choices are few and far between.

The one light at the end of this tunnel of depression is a brilliant vegetable, the Jerusalem artichoke. Much like last week's discussion on chard, it is a misunderstood and under-used vegetable. The name doesn't help as it has absolutely no relation the globe artichoke you will be more familiar with. It is actually the root or tuber of a particular sunflower and if you have never seen one, think of a ginger root with cylindrical rings on the surface of their gnarly skin.

The taste is quite nutty with a bit of sweetness from their natural sugars depending on how old they are. Roasted, steamed, boiled or mashed, they are such a lovely addition to the plate. My favourite thing to do with a Jerusalem artichoke is to turn it into a soup; they blend perfectly to make for the silkiest of textures. The one downside to them are their famous wind-inducing properties due to their complex carbohydrates or inulin. This of course may be an added to bonus to fans of flatulence...

Smoky Jerusalem Artichoke and Ginger Soup
Serves 2

500g Jerusalem Artichokes, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 thumb size of ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 tsp smoked paprika
A pinch of cayenne pepper
750ml vegetable stock
2 tbsp natural yoghurt
Salt and pepper
Pumpkin seeds (optional) lightly toasted in a dry pan

1 - Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the Jerusalem artichokes, onion, garlic and ginger. Cook for around 5 minutes until beginning to soften.
2 - Add the tomato purée, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper and cook for 1 minute, stirring all of the time.
3 - Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 minutes until the Jerusalem artichokes are soft.
4 - Using a hand blender or food processor, blend the soup until smooth. Stir in the yoghurt and taste for seasoning. Serve with optional toasted pumpkin seeds and a sprinkling of paprika.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Orange and Honey Braised Chicory

There are few edible things that test me. I'm a hog at the best of times and not many foodstuffs that grow or walk on our earth are unpleasant to my palate. Not bad considering I was an incredibly fussy eater as a child.

However there is a vegetable that did test me until recently. Chicory, or the Belgian Endive, is one of those vegetables at this time of the year when they are high in season that you see sitting on a superstore shelf with the 'Reduced' tag on it as people tend to walk past wondering what it is. I've been eating them for years having great difficulty coming to terms with their natural bitterness. Often found shredded and tossed in salads with equally pungent ingredients such as blue cheese, walnuts and mustard, I've tried hard to love it and failed miserably.

Right at the core of the chicory sits the predominant bitterness. A sharp knife will remove the core making a much more pleasant vegetable. But braising the vegetable in a liquid makes things much more interesting. And that is what has turned me around to loving chicory like no other. An hour braising in an oven with orange, honey and mustard will caramelise the leaves, sweeten up the core and make for a brilliant bed for such things as poached fish or game.

Never give up on a lost cause is my motto. We aren't always going to instantly fall in love with particular foods no matter how much you love eating. Give it time, experiment with different flavours and cooking techniques and like the chicory with me, you will soon grow to love them.

Orange and Honey Braised Chicory
Serves 2 as an accompaniment

2 heads of chicory, cored and cut in half
2 tbsp olive oil
100ml fresh orange juice
3 tbsp honey
1 tbsp Dijon or English mustard
Salt and pepper

1 - Pre-heat the oven to 180C, GM4.
2 - Heat the olive oil in an ovenproof frying pan. Season the chicory with a little salt and pepper then put them into the pan cut side down. Cook for 2 minutes until it begins to colour.
3 - Pour over the orange and honey and bring to the boil. Stir in the mustard then place in the oven for 45 minutes, turning and basting every now and again.