Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pad Thai

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Thai cooking course . . . and it was good fun . . . but I couldn't help but realize, about half-way through the class, that it wasn't going to lead to recipes that I could make for dinner. First of all, it involved lots of chopping and lots of ingredients that I wasn't likely to have on hand -- not great for those evenings when I have a late pick-up from school.   These are minor problems, though, compared to the eating prohibitions imposed by my family.  My husband doesn't like curry, coconut milk (for health reasons) or spicy things; my daughter doesn't like any kind of seafood.

I love those Thai flavors, though.  Peanuts. Lemongrass. Coriander. Ginger.

Even though I want to abandon the typical winter fare, our weather isn't really cooperating.  In late March in England, it's still cold and wet and there's not any exciting seasonal produce, either.  Somehow, the spicy, aromatic, fresh tastes of Thai food seem just-right to me right now.

The one thing that everyone in my family loves is noodles, so I have been concentrating all of my efforts on perfecting my Pad Thai recipe.  It is quick to make, delicious to eat, and has just enough flavor to please me -- but not enough to put off the rest of my family.  Pad Thai, like any kind of stir fried dish, is really just a blueprint . . . and I have experimented a lot with this recipe.  I started off using rice noodles, which are thin and brittle and must be soaked for an hour before you stir-fry them.  They burn very easily, though, and absorb lots of oil; so after some trial and error, I decided that ribbon noodles were a much better deal.  (I buy a brand called Sharwood's Thai ribbon noodles, and they can be found in my usual grocery store.)  After five or six attempts at this dish, this is the version we've liked the best, but it can certainly be altered to suit your own taste.  If you like more bite, you could add some diced red or green chilli peppers.  Shrimp is good with it, too.

for stir-fry
shallot or small red onion
garlic -- one or two cloves
a knob of grated or chopped ginger
a couple of tablespoons of groundnut (or vegetable) oil
thinly sliced red pepper
a couple of handfuls of bean sprouts
4 to 6 ounces of cooked chicken
a 300 gram/12 ounce package of ribbon noodles
one egg, lightly beaten
chopped coriander (or cilantro, if you are in the U.S.)

for sauce
two tablespoons of fish sauce
juice from a lime
one tablespoon of sugar
one tablespoon of tamarind sauce
one tablespoon of smooth peanut butter
a handful of salted peanuts


Assemble the ingredients for the sauce in a dish and gently warm -- just enough so the peanut butter will amalgamate with the rest of the ingredients.

Chop/dice all of the vegetables and the chicken.  You want to have everything ready before you begin, because it will only take about 5 minutes to cook this dish.
Heat the oil in a large nonstick saucepan or wok until warm, but not sputtering.  You want to GENTLY cook the shallot (or red onion).  As it begins to soften, add the chopped garlic and ginger.  Cook for just a minute, and then add the red pepper and the noodles.  (Note:  you may need to pull apart the noodles with your thumb and fingers.)  Stir quickly, until the noodle mixture is evenly coated with the oil -- and then add a lightly beaten egg (or two) to a clean section of the pan.  As soon as it is just scrambled, lightly incorporate the egg into the rest of the dish and add the bean sprouts and the chicken.  Finally, add the sauce and toss until evenly coated.

To serve, toss with a handful of peanuts and chopped coriander (or cilantro).
This serves two, but you can easily double it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Hot Cross Buns and a glass of Irish Stout

I said that I was finished with Hot Cross Buns, but then Dan Lepard's recipe came along to tempt me.  Soaking the fruit in hot black tea . . . and fermenting the sponge in Irish stout . . .  could there be a better way of celebrating the Irish and the Lenten season? 

My daughter says this is the best batch yet:  lots of fruit and a rich malty flavor.  Is it just my imagination, or does stout have a chocolate bouquet?  Maybe not, but the smell in my kitchen was incredible.

325 ml Irish stout
1 1/2 tsp each of ground ginger, cinnamon and mace (or mixed spice)
1 1/2 tsp dry instant yeast
875 g strong white four
325 g raisins (or currants and sultanas)
175 g mixed peel, or finely chopped dried apricots
250 ml hot black tea
1 large egg
50 g melted butter
50 g caster sugar
1/1/2 tsp salt

The night before, mix the stout, spices, yeast and 325 g flour in a deep bowl.  Put the raisins, peel and tea in another bowl.  (Cover both bowls with cling film.)
Next day, mix the egg and butter with the fruit, then stir into the beer and spice batter.
Mix in 550g flour, the sugar and salt, and leave for 10 minutes.
Lightly oil your hands and patch of worktop or cutting board.
Knead the dough for 10 seconds, leave for 10 minutes, repeat twice more at 10-minute intervals, and then leave for an hour.  If the dough is too sticky, lightly flour the surface of it as you knead.

Divide the dough into 100 g pieces, shape into balls and place, touching, on a tray lined with nonstick paper.  Leave for 90 minutes.
Mix a couple of tablespoons of flour, a tablespoon of caster sugar and enough water to make a pourably thick paste.  Pipe crosses on each ball. 
Bake at 200C/400F for approximately 25 minutes.
While the buns are still hot, brush with a glaze made from a tablespoon each of caster sugar and boiling water.

To your health!

a pale green tulip for St. Patrick's Day

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hot Cross Buns

For some inexplicable reason, (but I will attribute it to the unseasonably cold weather), I have become obsessed with hot cross buns this spring. I’m on a quest for the perfect recipe, and it’s already been quite the long process. After my fourth batch, my oldest daughter warned me that I’m in danger of permanently burning her out, so perhaps this should be my last batch – until the next Easter season, of course.

I’ve decided that this is my year to try my hand at baked goods I’ve never experimented with before. Actually, I’ve meant to make hot cross buns for several years now, but it has long been our tradition to spend Easter in Texas, and invariably I will forget about hot cross buns until Easter is long-gone. Of course, I could make hot cross buns in May . . . but if you are going to make a seasonal specialty, it does seem more meaningful to abide by the imposed timeline.

As my years in England increase, I’ve noticed that my baking habits are skewing towards British traditions. There is ancient historical precedence for having hot cross buns at Easter – to the extent that Queen Elizabeth I had to pass a law limiting their production to the Christmas and Easter season. (Apparently they had a dangerous association with Catholicism, but we won’t get into that.) Anyway, that law must have been repealed a long time ago because now you can find hot cross buns on the shelves of any grocery store year-round.

When I was looking for a recipe, I checked Baking with Julia first – and was hugely surprised to discover that this authoritative tome had neglected in include hot cross buns in their offerings. The Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking book didn’t have a recipe for them, either. I did manage to find a rather simple recipe in my 1953 edition of Better Homes and Gardens, but I was a bit dubious about it. Adding some currants and a bit of cinnamon to plain roll dough wasn’t really what I was looking for . . . because surely there is more to it than that? From this sampling of American cookbooks, I think that we can infer that hot cross buns are not really part of the American baking canon. I did find a recipe in the King Arthur Whole Grains cookbook – but after trying it, I couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it.

The first batch of hot cross buns I made came from a most beloved cookbook: Jane Brocket’s Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer. If you are a fan of English storybooks and/or the traditions of English teatime, this book is a must-have. Jane cites Dan Lepard, a well-known English baker, as the source of her recipe – and I did think it gave a good result. It makes a sturdy bun – slightly spicy, not too sweet. Like all yeast rolls, these buns are best straight out of the oven. As soon as they cool, I freeze what we aren’t going to eat right away. A brief defrost, and then a 20 to 30 second zap in the microwave, will approximate the just-out-of-oven goodness. This batch served as breakfast for a week.

The one drawback of the Jane Brocket recipe is the overall time it takes. Brocket wants three different risings (I don’t mean to sound Biblical here): one for the sponge, one for the dough, and another for the shaped rolls. She mentions having these buns for “elevenses,” but I would have to stay up all night if I wanted to serve them any time before noon. At this time of the year our house is extremely cold. Even when I put my buns in the “hottest part of the house,” the airing cupboard, I still needed to double the amount of time required to get a good rise out of my dough.

Moving on to the next step in my hot cross bun journey: Nigella. I was surprised (again!) to discover that Nigella Lawson didn’t include a recipe for hot cross buns in her baking book: How to be a Domestic Goddess. Surely, surely, a domestic goddess makes her own hot cross buns? She does remedy this oversight in a later cookbook: Feast. I had thought that Nigella’s hot cross bun would prove to the favourite, and thus final batch, of the hot cross buns . . . but sadly, no. Despite a promisingly fragrant beginning, where you steep clove and cardamom in hot milk, her buns were oddly flat and tasteless. I actually did wonder if there were mistakes in the recipe – which does not call for sugar or salt! Nigella gets all fancy with the finishing touches: an egg wash, plus the flour/sugar crosses, plus a sugar glaze. Unfortunately, her buns were as hard as rocks the next day. She bakes them in a very hot oven, unlike the other recipes that I followed, and although they are beautifully burnished they just don’t hold up well.

Even with the favourite of the three recipes I tried, the one from Jane Brocket, I wanted a hot cross bun that was more meltingly tender. Finally, on my fourth go, I improvised.  Hey, I do the experimenting so you don't have to.  One batch of hot cross buns per Good Friday is probably enough.

Bee’s Hot Cross Buns


2/3 cup milk
½ cup butter (4 ounces or one stick)
½ cup to 2/3 cup of sugar (depending on your sweet tooth)
zest of an orange and a lemon
1 package active dry yeast*
1 cup mixed dried fruit (raisins, currants, sultanas)
2 teaspoons mixed spice (or a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger if you don’t have this)
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
4 ½ to 5 cups of white bread flour


Just to be on the safe side, you may want to proof your yeast in a ¼ cup warm water and a teaspoon of sugar. You shouldn’t need to this with active yeast, but I got a better result when I did. * Next time I try this recipe I'm going to go with two packages of yeast, but I can't vouch for the end-result as I haven't tried it yet.

Then melt the butter into the milk over very low heat. While it was melting, I scraped off the zest from an orange and a lemon and threw it in the saucepan. When the mixture has cooled, and is only slightly warm, beat two eggs into it.

As the milk mixture is cooling, add the other ingredients into a large mixing bowl : 4 ½ cups of flour, the spices, the sugar, the salt and the dried fruit. Pour the liquid ingredients over the top and mix until well-incorporated. You may have to add a bit more flour – or conversely a bit more milk. The gluten in flour varies quite a lot and you need to go by feel. You want a soft dough that holds together, although it won’t make a ball shape; it shouldn’t be sticky, nor should it be dry. After being kneaded, it should feel silky. I kneaded it with my dough hook for about five minutes, without ever taking it out of my mixing bowl, but it is easy enough to do by hand. This kind of dough doesn’t need as much kneading as bread.

Lightly oil (or butter) your bowl and the top of your ball of dough. Cover with a damp tea towel and put in a warm place.* (The only warm place in my house is the airing cupboard.) It should rise until nearly doubled; this may take an hour, or it may take three hours. After your dough has risen, punch it down. (Please see the picture sequence.)

After the first rising, you will shape the dough into balls – approximately 3 ounces each – and place on a greased baking sheet. They should be “snug,” as Nigella says, but not touching. After they bake they will be touching, but you should be able to easily pull them apart. With a knife, score each bun with a cross. (If you wait to do this, you will press down too much on the dough after it has risen.) Cover your baking sheet with a tea towel and put the buns in a warm place for their second rising. Again, some recipes claim that this will happen in 45 minutes . . . but I found that two hours (or about the length of my yoga class, plus the drive back and forth) was just about right.

Before baking, you will have to do the last step: filling in the crosses. Without the crosses you’ve got nothing but spiced buns.

Make a paste of 3 tablespoons of flour, a tablespoon of sugar and approximately 2 tablespoons of water (maybe more). It should be smooth, thick, but not too thick. You can then pipe, syringe or merely ladle the paste into the indents of the cross.

my left-handed daughter demonstrates her technique

Bake for 25-30 minutes in a moderately high oven. 180C/375F. They should be golden brown, but be careful – the browner they get, the harder. Err on the light side of things.

Finally, when the buns are still warm, remove to a rack and glaze. If you boil a tablespoon of water with the same of sugar it will make a simple glaze to brush over the top. If you want something sweeter, you can make a simple frosting of icing sugar and milk.

It is not necessary to drink a cup of tea with a hot cross bun . . . but it is advisable.

The best way to reheat rolls is to place them in a plain paper bag, sprinkle the bag lightly with water, and place in a hot oven 3 to 5 minutes before serving.  (from the 1953 edition of "The Red Plaid Cookbook.")

Sunday, March 7, 2010

at last a glimpse of spring

my local fish man - the stenbiderrogn is the pink-ish stuff in the bowl upper left.
i knew that spring was on its way at last when i stepped into the fish store saturday morning and lo and behold, there was a big bowl of stenbiderrogn - google translator tells me that stenbider is lumpfish, but i have to say that a literal translation of "stone biter" sounds better in my ears. these delectable fish eggs taste of pure spring and the season doesn't last long - from late february to late april, sometimes into may.

stenbiderrogn w/creme fraiche and red onions

the best way to eat them is very simply. toast a piece of ordinary sliced bread, butter it generously, add a good spoonful of the lightly salty pink roe, a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprinkling of finely-chopped red onions. the fresh, springy pop of the eggs between your teeth just cannot be beat. they don't taste fishy at all, but light and fresh. a sure sign of spring. at least here in denmark.


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