Homemade Vanilla and Almond Biscotti

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Vanilla and almond biscotti

It's not every day I get to eat the food in my posts while writing my posts. Today, bliss of all bliss!, is one of those days and I am quite happily munching on a piece of homemade vanilla and almond biscotti--my first attempt at these tasty Italian cookies that usually accompany a steaming cup of tea or mug of coffee.

Cutting back on caffeine due to the pregnancy, I'm enjoying my biscotti with a few freshly washed grapes and some juice, and while I have refrained from dipping it in the juice, the texture of the biscotti tells me it would be fabulous dipped in milky coffee or tea.

 So, first off, I probably broke (and have a tendency to do so) the cardinal rule of baking, opting to use granulated sugar even when certain recipes call for caster sugar. At least this time, rationale lurks amongst my madness! You see, I think something that is full of texture and is supposed to have a rough elegance and look like its really been through the grindstone (like biscotti) needs the harsh, rough edges of granulated sugar.

Unlike a doughnut that just goes soft, when you dip a biscotti in your tea or coffee, you want to know it's there. You want to come across that nifty little crunch of almond or sugar and feel like everything is right with the world. At least, I do. Although, you may argue I put too much stock in the rejuvenating and stability-inducing effects of my food. :) So, for that reason (and because I refuse to buy caster sugar and because I would have been too lazy to pulse granulated sugar in my food processor to make it into caster sugar) I used granulated sugar.

Alright, enough with my evangelizing you and trying to convert you into a non caster sugar user! Here's what you need to make yummy biscotti at home:
2 eggs
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
200 g flour
175 g granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
150 g whole blanched almonds
vanilla sugar

Preheat your oven to 180C/355F.

Once you have all that on your counter, you need to roughly chop the almonds, leaving some whole. Of course, this seems like a waste of time, when you could have just bought blanched almond pieces, and to be honest, if it's going to cause you grief, chopping the little fellows up, then go ahead and buy the pieces. Whatever floats your boat and makes your cooking experience easier.

Next, you want to combine all of the dry ingredients in a bowl, mixing in the almonds.

Beat the eggs with the vanilla extract in a separate bowl and then add to the floury mixture. Combine to form a dough either by hand or using a food processor. Knead lightly and place onto a silicone baking tray or a lined baking tray in the shape of a log. Sprinkle vanilla sugar all over the dough, as much as you' like.

Pop in the oven for about 20 minutes. Once the first 20 minutes is up, allow to cool slightly.  Which means, when it's warm enough for you to touch, begin slicing it into pieces as thick or as thin as you'd like. Reduce the heat on the heaven to 160C/320F. Lay the pieces on their side on the baking tray and stick back in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

Let cool & enjoy with your favorite hot drink.

Tarragon Roasted Chicken Breast with Veg and Smoked Garlic Bechamel

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tarragon Roasted Chicken Breast with Smoked Garlic Bechamel

If there is ever a mantra you hear when learning to cook, it is:

Learn how to make a good bechamel. It'll take you places.

That's certainly true. A bechamel is like the big momma of the sauce world. Formed from the basis of a roux (butter and flour), it is used in a lot of French cooking and is the tasty white sauce in the Italian classic dish, lasagna. Bechamel's are lovely because they are the palate's blank canvas: any combination of herbs and spices can be added to a bechamel to produce a truly stunning sauce that will marry all of the components of a well-cooked plate of food.

This dish of tarragon roasted chicken breast, roast potatoes and cabbage is elevated with a nice, full-bodied bechamel whose main flavor is oak-smoked garlic. I came across the garlic about a month or two ago while having brunch with friends in a cafe in Manchester. They had a display of oak-smoked garlic on the counter just as you walked in and your olfactory senses were assaulted with the lovely, sweet, woody scent for the duration of your stay. So strong was the scent and my craving for that garlic that by the time I left, I was shaking at the thought of getting my hands on it.

It made our car smell lovely and garlicky, as well as our fridge and when I finally got around to putting it into my bechamel, it very nearly made me shout out in glee. Yeah, it's that good.

Now, I'm more of a thin-to-slightly thick type of girl when it comes to bechamel. I don't always want my bechamel to be the gloopy consistency it can be in lasagnas, but I don't want it to be watery either. I like a perfect balance of smooth with a few lumps of bits in it. Now, whether this is how the French intended it is irrelevant. For me, this works best because everything (namely the chicken and the roasted potatoes) really absorb the sauce without being overpowered by it.

So this meal? Simple. All you need is chicken breast (or a whole chicken or whatever parts you want) good roasting potatoes diced into chunks and fresh cabbage, washed, drained and torn into medium-to-big pieces.

First off, you're going to want to get the potatoes peeled and diced and boiled to softened. Next, heat the oil or fat for roasting in the roasting tin. I started off using lard but I have since switched to a combo of unsalted butter and olive oil, which I think works best for my tastes and leaves the potatoes crunchy on the outside and extra light and fluffy inside.
After the butter and oil is heated, place the potatoes in the roasting tin. They should sizzle when they come in contact with the butter and oil. Turn once to coat and then roast about 35 to 40 minutes on 200 C/400F until done.

While the butter and oil is heating up, you want to sear the chicken breast. Heat up a dry pan until it is searingly hot and place the meat in the pan pressing down lightly (don't squeeze out the juice) and searing each side for three minutes before moving to a roasting tin and sprinkling with herbs and spices before putting in the oven with the potatoes.

Cabbage is such an easy vegetable and everybody like it a specific way, so just make it whichever way your prefer. I prefer doing it my mom's way: a little bit of butter and water in a stock pot, put the cabbage in and steam being sure to season extra well and add more butter and salt before serving. Simple.

Bechamel's dead easy: a cup of milk, a tablespoon of butter, a tablespoon of plain flour, garlic & tarrgon (or whatever herbs you want). Basically, you melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a roux. Then gradually add the milk, now stirring with a whisk. After all the milk is in, add your chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Continue to stir until it reduces down to the thickness that you prefer. Finally, remove it from the heat & add the herbs. Give it a good stir & serve up.That's the simple way. If you really want the flavors to be prominent, then you need to begin by simmering the milk along with the herbs and spices over a low heat. Then set aside and follow the instructions as given.

Prawn & Mushroom Salad with Samphire & Baby Dill Potatoes

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Prawn and Mushroom Salad with Samphire and Baby Dill Potatoes

Like with anything, there are trends in food. If you're like me and you're a slave to cookery reality shows (MasterChef, Hell's Kitchen & a classic Nigella or Barefoot Contessa) then you're aware of this. Food trends, like the eternally youthful, follow the seasons. When its time to brace for the chill of winter, you're likely to see rustic ingredients lining the benches of TV's greatest chefs. Usually misshapen, colorful squashes and root vegetables or earthy, spices like nutmeg.

One such food trend I have been following for a long time is samphire. Samphire is referred to as a sea bean. It is a spindly, green vegetable that looks like a mangled anorexic green bean mated with asparagus spears. Originally used in the 14th century to make glass (when it was referred to as glasswort), samphire is now making a return to the forefront of society in the realm of cookery. It has a delicate taste that's subtle and salty. There are two types of samphire--rock and marsh. Rock samphire is the type that was used to make glass and is inedible.

I first came across samphire, I am thrilled to say, unexpectedly in Asda (Walmart). Wandering through the produce aisle, I saw it. It was displayed in the refrigerated section with sugar snap peas and other waxy green beans. Without hesitation, I plucked up a pack and tossed it into the shopping cart. "We have to try this," I said to my boyfriend who stared at this odd spindly mass of sea fringe. Long since having relented to my adventures in cooking, he shrugged and made no comment.

A few days later and after brief research into the tasty sea treat, it boiled in a pot of slightly salted water on my stove, waiting to be paired with a salad of pan-fried prawns and mushrooms (cooked in groundnut oil) and boiled baby potatoes smattered with sea salt and dill.

The flavors were exquisite. Something really great happens when you combine the salty freshness of the samphire with seafood. The earthiness of the mushrooms and the potatoes worked nicely as well to balance it and created a modern take on a surf and turf dish. I particularly enjoyed the depth the dill brought the dish. It elevated everything and you had the sweetness of the dill meeting the almost sour saltiness of the samphire and the prawns in a beautiful way.

I believe samphire is definitely going in my arsenal of must cook with again ingredients.

I'm looking forward to trying it with some scallops and a red wine jus ... alas, that dish will have to wait until this pregnancy is over.