Thursday, 15 January 2015

Chocolate cookies shaped as gingerbread men which should have been a house

Lately I can hardly find time to blog. Not that I do not like it anymore. In fact, I even have a few recipes prepared for posting, but it seems that there is a general conspiracy against me so that I am continuously asked to focus, my attention, and my energy and my time into everything but this.

 On the good side I would say I have been cooking quite a lot lately. And that, whether or not is to be published on the blog, makes me happy and brings happiness to those around me. And I have so many other things in which to put my energy that I often have to remind myself that the blog is still here. 

Among the things I've prepared lately there two Roscones de reyes. (This is the traditional baking for the Epiphany in Spain, which closes our Christmas celebrations and all the feasting on the 6th of January). I made them with the same recipe as always, as it is still the best I’ve found so far. In Belfast, however, I have yet to find where to buy fresh yeast, so I have to bake with the lyophilized stuff. The first attempt was good as for the flavour, but more the texture was more compact than it should be. The second, on time for the 6th of January, when we were back here, was just perfect. Therefore, I had to freeze it in portions or we'd eaten all at once. Yes, on the 6th, my daughters returned to school, being probably the happiest children at school, as they had rosc√≥n for breakfast. 

 And then I've done crazy things that have nothing to do with me, like trying to make a gingerbread house before Christmas, just because I came across this magazine and my daughters begged me to make it a weekend before our holiday trip. So, much to my regret, as intrincate decorations and crafts are my kryptonite in the kitchen, but maybe full of a Christmas spirit, I printed the shopping list, bought the long list of ingredients, and I prepared for a weekend of playing to build a house and decorate it with my daughters.

 And then I made a rookie mistake. I do not know if it was all the Christmas sugary emotion in the air or just the rush and the thousands of other things I was doing at the same time, but for some reason, I did not read the whole recipe. And something as basic as that, something I always recommend everyone, that was simply foolish. Because by the time I had a table full of everything you can imagine and a little more, when I had printed templates for different pieces and parts of the house and I was mentally prepared with loads of patience for what was about to come, then I kept on reading the recipe and realized the amounts needed for the dough –well, there is much to build I said to myself, being a beginner on this myself-. There was also enough dead time to wait between dough preparation and the time to use it, which when working with children is a no-no , as their patience is something that simply does not exist. But with butter cookies it is similar, I said again to myself –by the I should have realised it was my hopeful Christmas spirit talking-. 

The problem came when I discovered that it took several days to build the house. I could not believe. It's faster to build a real prefabricated house that to bake all that thing. Not to mention the half kitchen needed to let the pieces still while drying. Who has time / desire / site / patience and stomach to do something and then eat it? For me this was too much. So as the dough was resting in the fridge, I decided that the plan had changed and pulled out the little ginger men cookies cutter, and in a moment my kitchen was full with an army of chocolate mini men. One, two, three trays were filled in what was beginning to look like a cookie factory. There is still another thing I would suggest you never do, especially when you're baking cookies: never leave your oven unattended. Anyway, when I had just put the last tray in the oven, J. asked me something. I went upstairs, we started talking and kept talking, and when you live with someone you really enjoy talking to, chances are you engage in an interesting conversation. Needless to say, when I returned to the kitchen a smell of burnt cookie was already filling the last corner of the house. 

Conclusion: even when you've spent years cooking you keep doing, occasionally, all those things you know you should not do. The good side of this all (it has one, for sure), is that the cookies were spectacular. They are only suitable for chocolate lovers, because they are as chocolate loaded as they could be. It's like a butter cookie but with all the goodness of dark, velvety chocolate: a real bomb. And also on the positive side is that what my daughters wanted to do with the house was playing with the icing and doing all the decorations. The taste of royal icing on a cookie is too much sugary for them not. So we prepare a couple of coloured icings and they decorated the burnt cookies. I then gave some to some friends as a gift, because at home they started to quickly disappear from the tray, and we were more than capable to eat them all at once.

So, even though you might still feel fill up after all the Christmas overeating, I just wanted to post this recipe because I am sure I will repeat it at some point (probably just half of the original amount will be enough). At the end of the day, the blog is perfect for keeping this all together.

Chocolate cookies shaped as gingerbread men which should have been a house. 

100g Belgian dark chocolate
400g soft unsalted butter
300g caster sugar
100g golden syrup
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
700g plain flour
100g cocoa 

Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Set aside to cool a little. In a large bowl (or using the bowl of a stand mixer), cream the butter and sugar together until well combined.
Beat in the melted chocolate and golden syrup. Mix in the eggs until well combined and sift in the flour and cocoa. Mix until it forms a cohesive dough. Chill for 45 minutes.
Lay a sheet of baking paper on the worktop and place a quarter of the dough on top. Put a sheet of baking paper on top and roll out the dough to about 35cm x 25cm, roughly the thickness of a £1 coin. Repeat with the other quarters of dough to create 4 pieces. Carefully stack the pieces of dough in their baking paper on a chopping board or baking tray; rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
Cut out the dough in the form you prefer -I used a gingerbread men cookie cutter- and  put them into trays covered with baking paper. Chill again for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 190°C, fan 170°C, gas 5. Bake the cookies, in batches, for about 10 to 12 minutes. Leave to cool completely on the trays. The cooled cookies should be firm to the touch. If still a bit soft, bake for a little longer, taking care not to burn the edges.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

St Lucia saffron buns

There is something in the Scadinavian bakery that makes me love it every time. It is so honest, so truthful, so made for confort that you simply cannot beat it. I particularly love their sweet breads. This buns, to celebrate St Lucia on 13th December are simply a bread dough enriched with butter and egg. But you will need the time and the star ingredient, saffron, to make them the right way. Once you have tried them, you will repeat, as they are simply delicious. 

I would only warn you about the saffron. It will add a gorgeous colour to the buns, but it is a really powerful spice, so you'd like to be caoutious with it, or its flavour will overpower all the other flavorus in these buns. Once you adjust the exact quantity, you will have these beauties once and again. They are simply perfect, for St Lucia, or any other day in the year.

St Lucia Saffron Buns

300ml whole milk
3 or 4  saffron threads
75g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
500g strong white bread flour
100g golden caster sugar
7g sachet fast-action yeast
A teaspoon of salt
1 large egg, beaten, plus extra for egg wash
A little oil, for greasing


Put the milk in a small pan and gently heat until it’s steaming. Use a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron into a powder. Add this to the pan of milk along with the butter. Swirl to melt the butter, then set aside until lukewarm. 
In a large bowl, mix the flour, caster sugar, 1 tsp salt and the yeast together, and make a well in the middle of the bowl. Pour in the milk mixture along with the egg. Mix together to form a sticky dough, then turn out onto the work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (this will take about 10 mins). Put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film. Set the bowl in a warm part of the house and allow to rise for about 1 hr until doubled in size. 
Knock back the dough and divide into 12 equal portions. Cover the pieces with the oiled cling film while you make the rolls – this will stop the dough from drying out. Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll out into a 30cm-long strand. Roll up one end into the middle, turn over and roll the other end into the middle, forming the dough into an S-shape. Place the buns on a large (or 2 smaller) parchment-lined baking tray. Once all the buns are made, lightly cover with oiled cling film and prove until almost doubled in size (if making ahead, keep the dough in the fridge overnight and bake in the morning). While the buns prove, heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. 
When ready to bake, brush the buns with beaten egg and press a currant into the centre of each spiral. Put the trays in the oven and bake for around 15 mins. Allow to cool before serving. These are best eaten on the day they are made but will keep for a couple of days.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Easy Food Home Cook Hero Finalist 2014 - Pasta alla Norma

For those of you who do not know, Easy Food is a magazine for home cooks published in Ireland. I subscribed to it when I arrived in Belfast, and I have been following it then since. 
In 2011 they started an annual competition to find the best home cooks in Ireland, the Home cook hero awards. This year I entered the competition, and,  to my surprise, I was one of the finalists. The competition ran on the magazine for weeks. Aspirants sent their recipes to the magazine and 3 were selected for each of the 10 categories. My version of Pasta alla Norma was selected in the pasta category, sponsored by Barilla. 
One windy and rainy November morning I headed to Cooks Academy, in central Dublin quite early on in the morning. I had to cook the dish for the 3 judges, with the other 2 finalists in my category. I arrived so early that I was sent to have a cup of coffee before an early start of the day. Thank to that, I had an extra dosis of cafeine in the form of yet another double espresso to help me with the day ahead.

The guys from the academy and from the magazine were absolutely brilliant at all times. I also met the Barilla representative before the competition. I was on my own, but some of the other contestants came with some relatives or friends, so a small group of excited amateur cooks was getting ready before the time for cooking started. 

The funny bit is that the competition in the morning was completed with a black tie dinner in one of the most luxurious hotels in Dublin, The Selbourne. Both the morning cooking and the evening gala were the base for a TV show aired the following week on TV3Ireland. You can see the full show in here. You can see me around minute 27, and right after that you will also see who won in my category -which, as you'd have already imagined, was not me, ooops!

Me and the two other girls in the pasta category were the first to start. And we were also the first to talk to the camera. Soon after that, all our stuff was ready waiting for us to start cooking, and our cooking slot started. I should say that the 45 minutes ran incredibly fast. Other groups were starting soon after ours, and the cook academy was getting full of teams of excited home cooks trying to do their best for the day. 

We were the first in finishing and bringing our dishes to the judges. Soon right after that, the morning contest was over for us, we were supposed to know who had won in the evening gala, although by then (if it had not been clear enough before) it was already a fact who had been the lucky winner, and most of it was finished for us. They took some photos and we were basically done for the morning. 

 Me and my Pasta alla Norma at the Cooks Academy, Dublin

Barilla also got me as a gift a chef jacket. My first cook jacket ever! Thanks a lot, Helen, for everything during the day. It was really nice meeting you! Thanks to every one at Cooks Academy, you were really brilliant! And thanks to all the people at Easy Food Magazine. You made a great job with the contest, the cooking, the gala. Very well done all..  It has been one of the nicest experiences connected to food that I have had so far and my first appearance in an Irish TV channel, so far.... 

So, now I am also officially one of the finalist at the 2014 Easy Food Home Cook Hero Awards.

The recipe that I prepared for the contest is a traditional italian recipe. It has auberginies on it, which is one of my favorite ingredients. I publised this recipe in my blog, back in Spain, years ago. Below you can find the recipe. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do at home.

Pasta alla Norma

Ingredients for 2 people

1 medium eggplant
4 ripe tomatoes (or a can of chopped tomatoes 500 grams)
1 or 2 cloves garlic (to taste)
1 chili (or chile, chili powder, or similar-optional)
Basil leaves
A few tablespoons of ricotta (optional)
Olive oil (optional -if you follow a low fat diet, you'll fin in the directions how to avoid it)
80 to 100 grams of pasta: Rigatoni, Tortiglioni or similar  (adjust quantity to taste)


NOTE: I have made this sauce with almost no oil. (Yes, you can) as I explain below. If you prefer to make the sauce as usual, it will be perfect, too.

Cut the eggplant into medium cubes. Put in a bowl, add salt and let it loose the excess water.

Put the pasta to cook in salted water and cook according to manufacturer's instructions, trying to let it al dente.

Put half a teaspoon of olive oil in a pan, or a couple of oil-sprays and spread with a paper towel just to prevent sticking. Place over medium heat with onion chopped very fine. Before it starts to burn, a minute or so, add two tablespoons water and cook the onion over medium heat. Add garlic, chilli or pepper if using, and cook about 5 minutes, until onion starts to be done. 

Add the eggplant, cover the pan and let it cook slowly about 5 minutes, until eggplant begins to release juices. Uncover, stir and keep 3 or 4 minutes. If the eggplant begins to cling to the bottom, add a few tablespoons of water, stir and continue cooking.

Add the tomatoes. If they are fresh, clean pieces skinless and cut into cubes, if they are packaged, add them directly with their juice. Cook another 5 minutes. Add chopped basil leaves. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary.

Drain the pasta (without passing it through cold water), mix with sauce and serve decorated with basil leaves and a dollop of ricotta cheese. This cheese is not too fatty, but if you prefer not to use it, your pasta will still be delicious.