Friday, 27 April 2012

Ricotta and Spinach Slice
I have probably made this slice for every gathering we've had in the last few years...except once...and then I was asked if it was still in the oven!  It seems to be universally popular, which is somewhat surprising given that most people wouldn't eat spinach on its own.  It is one of the most versatile dishes too: you can cut it into 25 dainty 'entertaining-the-mother-in-law' pieces, into 4 'hungry fella' slabs...or anything in between; serve it hot with vegetables for dinner, warm with a salad for lunch, or cold and on its own in a lunchbox.  And it's very forgiving: you really don't need to be exact with the measurements and you can substitute ingredients quite happily if you need to.  For example: you can take it in a Provence-ish direction by using silverbeet (chard) leaves and a sprinkling of thyme, you can take it to Greece with filo pastry and a smattering of fetta, you can even go all Espanol with manchego cheese and a few chopped olives.  And I've seen big burly blokes go for seconds and thirds when I've served it piled on platters as part of a buffet.  Not only do "real men eat quiche", they eat this too!
2 sheets puff pastry thawed
400g Ricotta (smooth or lumpy, it makes no difference)
2 bunches of fresh spinach, or 1 package of frozen spinach thawed and well squeezed!
50g /2oz good hard cheese such as Cheddar or Jack, grated
25g / 1oz freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padano or similar
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 nutmeg grated (or 1/4 tsp of ready ground nutmeg)
2 eggs
1/2 tblspn milk
1 tsp sesame seeds
  1. Preheat the oven to 200 C / 400 F.  Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper or baking parchment and place one sheet of pastry on it (remove the plastic backing of course!).
  2. If you're using fresh spinach, wash it well and cook it in a dry pan for a few seconds until it is JUST cooked, remove it to a chopping board and chop well with a mezzaluna or heavy bladed knife. 
  3. In a large bowl mix together the spinach, the cheeses, the pepper and nutmeg.
  4. Break the eggs into a cup and beat fairly well.  Pour most of the eggs into the spinach mixture - you need to reserve about 1/2 tblspn in the cup.  Mix everything together really well with a fork (it helps to break up any lumps on spinach).
  5. Pile the mixture onto the pastry sheet and spread to within 1cm / 1/2 inch of the edges.  You need to make it as even as possible and avoid a dome in the middle.
  6. Mix the milk with the reserved egg and use it to moisten the edges of the pastry.  Place the remaining pastry sheet on top and seal the edges by pressing down with a fork.  Brush the egg & milk mixture over the top of the slice to glaze it then sprinkle the sesame seeds over.
  7. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden and shiny.
  8. Allow to cool a little before serving, or completely before wrapping and storing.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Toffee Cinnamon Bites:
Here's a really quick recipe for a really quick snack.  The sweet version can happily join in with morning coffee, afternoon tea, or movie-time munchies.  The savoury version I've included at the end of the recipe is a great accompaniment for drinks whether it's civilised cocktails with the girls, or beers with the boys!  Excluding the time it takes to pre-heat the oven, I made both versions (which gave me 32 pieces) in 15 minutes.  If you're feeding a larger number of people just double or triple the quantities.
For Cinnamon Bites:
1 sheet frozen puff pastry - thawed
2 tblspns caster or superfine sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
  1. Preheat the oven to 200 C / 400 F.  Remove the plastic sheet from the back of the pastry, lay it on the bench and place the pastry back on top.
  2. Mix together the sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Sprinkle evenly over the surface of the pastry then press into the surface lightly.
  3. Roll each side of the pastry sheet in towards the middle, keeping the plastic backing on the bench.  When the two sides nearly meet, fold the along the central gap so that you have a long narrow log shape.  
  4. With a sharp knife cut off any ragged edges at the top and bottom of the log, then cut approximately 15 or 16 slices from the log.  Lay the slices on a lined baking sheet leaving space between for expansion.  Bake for 10 minutes or until puffed and golden.  When you bring them out of the oven immediately remove them from the baking tray with a spatula or palette knife and place on a cooling tray.  The reason for this is that the melted sugar will spot weld the bites to the baking tray if allowed to cool!
For Parmesan Bites:
1 sheet puff pastry - thawed
1/4 tsp chilli powder
2 tablspns freshly grated parmesan - or Grana Padano, whichever you prefer.
  1. The method is identical, just mix the cheese and spice together in step 2 then proceed with the rest of the steps.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Lemon Ombre Cake (or Happy Birthday to Me!)
There are a few flavours and flavour combinations which always make me happy: a good sharp hit of lemon would probably be in my top 3.  It was my birthday last week and, given that the long Easter weekend was coming right up, I deferred celebrations a little.  It's probably a bit odd to make your own birthday cake, but I consider it a present to myself!  I opted to max out the lemon: light as air lemon sponge layers, silky smooth but cheek-suckingly-sharp lemon curd filling, all swathed in tangy swirls of fluffy lemon frosting.  But the lemon isn't agressive at any point, it's all mellowed and balanced by the sugar you always get (and which can be cloying with other flavour combos) in both the cake and the frosting.  Oh, and all with the fashionable ombre effect (it's de rigeur daaahling!!).  There are a couple of things I would do differently next time I make this cake: firstly I would keep the cake refrigerated right up until serving just so that the cake crumb was firmer; and I would frost the cake on its serving plate rather than try to transfer it once completed...yikes!  If you have sandwich tins your life will be easier as you can bake 2 layers at a time; if you don't it's still not difficult, it just takes a bit longer to get the cake stage done.
For the Cake:
This is a 4 egg mix (from the cake mix matrix which can be found here.  PLUS:
8 drops of yellow food colouring gel (I used Americolor Egg Yellow), 
3 tblspns milk (making 7 tblspns or 105mls total)
Zest of a large lemon.
  1. Preheat the oven to 160 C / 325F.  Weigh your mixing bowl and note down the number.  Line two 20cm / 8" sandwich tins, or a single cake tin if that's what you have to hand.  Make the cake batter as per the instructions in the matrix, adding the extra milk and lemon zest, then beat on high for 3 minutes until very pale, very light and very soft.
  2. Scrape off the beaters into the bowl and weigh it again, note down the number.  Now, subtract the weight of the mixing bowl and divide the answer by 5 - that's how much mixture is going into each layer of the cake (for me it was 175g / 6oz.  Place the cake tin on the scales, zero the scales, then pour in the required weight of cake batter.  Tilt the cake tin gently until the batter is evenly spread (if your mixture is a bit too firm to tilt into place just nudge it gently with a small spatula).  
  3. Add 2 drops of yellow gel to the remaining batter in the bowl and mix VERY well. Add 175g / 6oz of batter to the second tin, level the mixture.  Now bake both of these for approximately 9-10 minutes or until they feel springy to the touch.  If you're baking one layer at time make sure you bake it in the centre of the oven.  Meanwhile add a further 2 drops of food colouring gel to the batter in the bowl and beat well.
  4. When cooked, cool the cakes in the tin for about 5 mins then carefully de-tin onto a cooling rack.  Run some cold water into the tin (to cool it down), re-line and weigh in another 175g/6oz of batter.  Repeat the process until you have 5 cooked layers of sponge cake, adding 2 drops of colouring to the batter for each layer.  Make sure you remember the order in which you placed the cooked layers on the cooling that you stack them in the right order when you assemble the cake!
For the Lemon Curd / Lemon Butter Filling:
2 large or 3 medium lemons
150g / 6oz sugar
100g / 4oz unsalted butter cut up
4 large eggs (don't use very fresh eggs, the egg white is too thick)
  1. Place the zest and juice of the lemons in a heatproof bowl.  Add the sugar and the butter.  Break the eggs into jug or bowl, beat them well, then strain them through a sieve onto the other ingredients.  I know this sounds fussy, but you really don't want lumps of cooked egg white making your lemon curd grainy.
  2. Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until everything is melted and/or dissolved - about 5 mins.  At this stage you'll probably wonder how such an unpromising mess will ever turn into something does.  Just leave the bowl over the simmering water, stir it every couple of minutes while you get on with something else, until you have a thick custard consistency.
  3. Remove the bowl from the heat, allow it to cool a little then cover completely with plastic wrap (it's best if the wrap touches the surface of the curd), and place in the fridge until you assemble the cake.
For the Frosting:
200g / 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
500g / 4 cups icing sugar, sieved
juice of 1 large lemon (the one you zested for the cake)
  1. Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a free standing mixer and (using the paddle attachment) beat on slow until everything is combined.  Increase the speed to high and beat for 3-4 mins until very white, light and fluffy.  Scrape down the sides and beat for a further 30 seconds.
To Assemble the Masterpiece:
  1. If your cakes have fairly flat tops (which they should) you can go straight on to the layering.  If they have domed tops, carefully slice off the domed part so you have a flat surface.  Place the darkest yellow layer upside down on the serving plate.  Place about 2 tblspns of the lemon curd on top and spread almost to the edges.  If you need a little more lemon curd that's fine, you'll have plenty.
  2. Take your next darkest yellow layer and carefully place that on top.  Keep layering up the cakes with lemon curd in between until you have placed your final palest layer on top.  You can of course do this in reverse order so the lightest layer is at the bottom, it just seems a bit counter-intuitive!
  3. Now, take a bamboo skewer (or similar implement) and push it, from the top, right down through the entire cake stack.  This will give you some stability while you add the crumb coat of frosting.  Take a small amount of icing and spread it very thinly all over the top and sides of the cake.  Add more icing where you need to so that you have a completely smooth surface over the top and sides.  Remove the skewer and place the cake in the fridge for 20-30 mins.
  4. Now for the fun part!  I can't be precise here because so much depends on your icing style.  It really doesn't matter about precision though as you will have plenty of frosting of the right colour when you need it.  So, place a good couple of scoops of white icing in a disposable pastry/icing bag fitted with a coupler and small open star tip.  Starting at the top edge, pipe 6's or 9's (that's left or right spirals) around the side of the cake.  They should be large enough to cover about 1/4 the height of the cake.  Next, pipe the same spirals on top of the cake around the outside edge...see the photo above if my description is inept!  If you run out of frosting just scoop some more into your piping bag from the bowl.  Any frosting left in the bag can be squeezed back into the bowl.
  5. Add 1 drop of yellow food gel colouring to the frosting and beat well, it must be completely mixed in with no streaks.  Remove the coupler and tip from the previous icing/pastry bag and place in a new bag.  Scoop in some of the pale yellow frosting and pipe another layer of spirals around the side of the cake just below the white ones, repeat on the top of the cake.  Add another drop of food colouring to the frosting in the bowl, beat really well, then complete your third row...add a drop of colour, beat, complete the fourth and final row.
  6. Place the cake in the fridge for 30 mins or so, just to firm up the frosting.  And use a good sharp knife when you cut the cake...I didn't, and it fuzzied up the layers a little. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Icing Options
My last post was a recipe for orange nutmeg cookies (you can find it here) and I used some of the dough to make lambs and chicks for my little lamb and chick...and I promise this will be the last cutesy posting for a couple of months!  I also promised I'd post a recipe for royal icing which I have combined with ready to roll fondant on the lambs, and used 'neat' on the chicks.  It has taken me quite a while to settle on the recipe that works best for me and the local climate and I still need to adjust the amount of water if it's a particularly hot, dry, or stormy don't worry if you need to make small adjustments too.  Also, most recipes I have read talk about 'meringue powder' which I haven't been able to find locally.  But, I did find something called Pavlova Magic (well of course, it's practically the national dish!) which seems to work just fine.  Now, there are several videos on You Tube if you're new to piping, and this one is my favourite for basic technique.  Oh, and please don't think you have to do any of that origami business to make your own piping bags...get a pack of disposables from the supermarket or a cake decorating shop.  Lastly, please don't freak out that the lamb and the chick are the same size, this is not some scary steroid experiment...they're just cookies!!
Royal Icing: enough for at least 36 cookies
3 tblspns Pavlova Magic or meringue powder
500g / 1lb 2oz icing or confectioners sugar
5 tblspns water (which should be hand hot)
Upto 2 tsps of flavouring (vanilla or almond essence, lime juice etc)
  1. Place the Pavlova Magic or meringue powder in the bowl of a free standing mixer and add the hand hot water.  With the paddle attachment, beat on slow for about 30 seconds until it's dissolved then increase the speed to medium and beat for about a minute until the mixture is nice and frothy.
  2. Add the icing or confectioners sugar all in one go and beat on slow - to avoid getting covered in sugar - until everything is well mixed.  Increase the speed to medium and beat for about 6 or 7 minutes.  The mixture should be very white and very stiff.  If you remove the paddle attachment and run it through the icing, you should be able to turn the paddle upside down and the peak of icing will stand straight up.
  3. At this point, I usually divide the icing between a number of smaller plastic boxes or bowls, according to how many colours I need, cover each batch with a piece of cling wrap - and make sure the wrap is touching the entire surface of the icing to ensure that no air gets in - put the lids on, and stash the whole lot in the fridge until the next time I get an opportunity to potter in the kitchen! 
For the Lambs:
Pre-baked and cooled cookies
A small amount of light corn syrup (such as Karo) or runny honey 
White ready to roll fondant icing
White royal icing
Black sugar beads
Disposable piping bag fitted with a coupler and PME 1.5 piping tip
  1. Dust the kitchen bench with a little cornflour / corn starch.  Roll out the fondant to approximately 3mm or 1/4"  thickness.  Using the same lamb cutter you used for the cookies, cut out as many shapes as you need.  You can re-roll the scraps of fondant a couple of times, but after that there's usually too much cornflour incorporated and you need to use a new piece.
  2. Brush the surface of the cookies with a little corn syrup - don't go right to the edges of the cookie as they will have spread during baking and the fondant shape will be slightly smaller.
  3. Place a fondant cut out on top of each cookie and press lightly all over.  Push a black sugar bead into the fondant for the eye.
  4. Next, take a couple of tablespoons of white royal icing and place in a small bowl.  Add a teaspoon of water and beat really well with a spatula.  Pour the icing into the prepared piping bag.  Lift the bag and shake the icing down to the tip then twist the top part of the bag to make a seal.  (See the Sweetopia video link in the top paragraph for the visuals).  Now, pipe a line all round the body of the lamb and around the edge of the face.  Pipe some spirals and "C's" on the body - and there you have your woolly little lamb!
For the chicks:
Pre-baked and cooled cookies
Royal icing
Black sugar beads
1 disposable piping bag fitted with a coupler and a PME 1.5 tip (for the orange)
1 disposable piping bag fitted with a coupler and #2 plain tip (for the yellow)
  1. Colour a portion of the royal icing yellow - I used Americolor's Egg Yellow - and just add one drop at a time until you have a colour just a shade lighter than you would like.  Now, you want to create what I call 'all purpose' icing.  That means an icing you can use to outline AND flood a cookie at the same time.  So, when you draw a knife through the bowl of icing you want the gap to close and for there to be no trace of the knife mark in about 10 seconds.  So, add about a half teaspoon of water and mix well with a spatula.  Try the knife test.  If it takes 15 or 20 seconds for the mark to disappear, add another half teaspoon of water and beat again then re-test it.  Cover the icing and set it aside for about 30 mins, the colour will develop further.  Take a tiny amount of royal icing and colour it orange - I used Americolor's Electric Orange.  Just add a couple of drops of water off the end of your finger to thin this tiny amount.  Beat it well after the water is added.
  2. Pour each batch of icing into their respective piping bag, shake down and twist to seal.
  3. Take the yellow icing and pipe an outline around the body of the chick (not the beak).  Immediately flood the shape by piping inside the outline until the body and head areas are filled.  Gently shake the cookie left and right on the work surface to make sure the icing is even and levelled.  With a pair of tweezers, drop a black sugar bead into the wet icing as an eye.  Leave the icing to set for about 30 minutes.  Next, outline and flood a little wing shape on top of the piped body - it will look very dimensional!
  4. Finally, outline and fill the tiny beak and pipe on the legs and feet.  Leave the cookies to dry completely for 4-6 hours then place them in an airtight box and they will keep prefectly well for about a week.