Between New Orleans, the Autumn Run and Christmas, February was the first proper Pay-What-You-Want since last summer. As you might imagine, I was bubbling over with ideas that I wanted to share with you. You may have seen some recent blog posts about the experiments I’ve been doing but this is the first time anyone had a chance to try some of the more wildly successful manifestations of my imagination.
Victorian Mince Pie / Eccles Cake
I really wanted to kick off the dinner with Smoke and Thyme twist on the St John Eccles cake. Inspired by an actually-made-with-meat mince pie I had over Christmas, I’ve made a fruity, nutty, boozy cured mincemeat which I packed into puff pastry and presented with a piece of sharpened cheese.
After the rave reviews we got for the Fried Chicken and Beer Christmas parties, we thought we’d share the love even more this year by bringing Smoke and Thyme’s fried chicken direct to the Tap Social Brewery this April 11-13th.
For those of you who don’t know already, Tap Social is a fantastic local brewery based in Botley with a social mission to help with rehabilitation and retraining of ex-offenders. They are also a community space that has become one of Oxford’s best new music venues and a street food hub, and somehow they manage to still find time to create some pretty damn tasty beers.
There is something unfathomable about our relationship with chocolate. It’s been around for longer than most civilizations, crossed oceans, can be found all around the world and yet is still only grown in tiny farms in very isolated tropical climates. We use it as a cure-all for broken hearts, rainy days and midnight snacks but there’s more to the way it affects the brain and body than just a sugar rush.
Cocoa (or Theobroma Cacao) translates literally to ‘food of the gods’ and has a chemical quality which is uniquely divine. It contains theobromine, which is toxic to animals like dogs and cats, but works in humans as a stimulant with caffeine.
In addition, cacao contains natural chemicals that work as antidepressants and simulate the feeling of being in love. It also contains flavonoids, which reportedly prevent cancers, protect blood vessels, promote cardiac health, and counteract high blood pressure. So not only does chocolate make your heart happy, it’s actually good for it.
Now this doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy a Cadbury bar a day. Sugar is still a large part of most popular chocolate bars and the positive effects of cacao are most pronounced in high cocoa chocolate bars, so unfortunately the darker and more bitter the chocolate, the more likely it’s doing good things for you. Flavonoids have even been found to be appetite suppressants, so you can literally eat chocolate to help you lose weight.
But this tasty treat takes a little more work to get to your mouth than it takes for you to work it off. Cacao beans may have been around since the ancient Olmecs but it’s still a long journey to turn a cacao bean into the kind of modern chocolate bar that you would recognise in a corner shop.
Cocoa is a very exclusive plant which only grows in tropical climates 20 degrees latitude from the equator. Once planted, cocoa trees take 3-5 years to grow their first crop and each cocoa pod takes 6 months to ripen. Then the beans are harvested from their pods and left in piles to ferment for a week or so. As most plantations are owned by smallholding farmers, they often leave these under banana leaves as they are cheap and easy to source. Then the beans are dried in the sun and graded before being shipped over to Western countries. Despite the fact that cocoa beans have been harvested and grown in South America for thousands of years, many cocoa growers have never even tasted chocolate before.
When the beans arrive in the UK they are roasted to kill bacteria and develop the flavour of the bean, then de-shelled in a wind tunnel in a process called winnowing. After this the cocoa beans are ground down to a fine powder, then the cocoa butter and powder are separately sold, as cocoa butter is often in high demand from cosmetic companies. They are then mixed back together with sugar and milk powder and go through the long, grinding, mixing of the conch.
Conching can take up to 96 hours before the chocolate has achieved that smooth velvety texture. Then the chocolate goes through controlled tempering which breaks down the cocoa crystals and ensures that you get that perfect melt and a good snap. Finally the chocolate is poured into molds, cooled, wrapped in packaging and sent to stores. The whole process takes well over a year of patience and hard work and every stage is one that took centuries of trial and error by different cocoa growers and chocolatiers to get the delicious flavour and smooth texture that is so ubiquitous today.
So when you’re looking for a heart shaped box to buy your loved ones (or yourself) this Valentines, you’re getting something far more than a box of sugary candy. In each decadent bite, you’re sharing in a centuries-old tradition and over a year of hard work to create; an indulgent treat that humanity took centuries to perfect, just because it makes our lives a little sweeter.
The blog this week was by guest writer Claire LeMaster, who has over 7 years of experience in confectionery and chocolate. She works for Smoke and Thyme as our events and marketing manager.
Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is the two Michelin starred gem in Oxford’s dining crown. Raymond Blanc (him off the telly) has turned an old manor house into one of the most comfortable and luxurious restaurants in the country.
I didn’t understand the point of gnocchi until I made it for myself. Shop bought gnocchi are dense little flavourless lumps that serve mostly to clag up a decent tomato sauce. But the very first batch of gnocchi that I made for myself were delicate, yielding, melty pillows of soft warm flavour. Obsession begins.
Although they’re treated like pasta, gnocchi are actually three quarters potato. My starting point for learning gnocchi, as with many other recipes, was Felicity Cloake’s recipe for the perfect gnocchi. After a couple of tries I swapped her method of baking the potatoes in favour of just boiling them. I also added a step of blanching the gnocchi in batches as I made them, which stops them from sticking together and keeps them in perfect condition until ready to serve. During the Autumn run I paired the basic gnocchi with ratatouille as well as with the umami paysan, a rich and hearty vegetarian stew which I call the meatiest thing you’ve ever had without meat.
So New Years was over a week ago, and just in case any of you are staying on top of your resolutions a little too well, I’m gonna leave this recipe for the most decadent and sinful slice of gooey chocolatey heaven right here. I’ll meet you on road paved with good intentions in about 45 mins + cooling time.
This is the first dish I ever made perfect. I’ve been cooking these brownies since I was 13, and I can’t remember what cookbook they came from originally because I’ve had this recipe memorised since the second time I made it. And other than minor variations, it really hasn’t changed in a decade and a half. It’s not the first thing I ever baked myself, but it is the oldest recipe that I still cook.
There are some pretty good reasons why. First off, these really really truly truly ARE the best brownies ever. I know that you’re skeptical, I understand that you’ve been disappointed by brownies that have over-promised before and have come to you dry, cakey and under-chocolated. But it’s okay. You’re with me now. You’re safe. These are the best brownies ever, I would never lie to you.
Secondly, my god they are easy to make. The mixture is almost impossible to screw up (melt the meltables, everything in a bowl & mix well), and you have easily a ten minute window when you can pull them out of the oven and they’re still good – it’s just up to you whether you want extra crunchy edges or more of the gooey centre.
This is also the first thing I ever ruined for myself. I can never order brownies when I go out anymore because they’re never as good as the ones I can make at home. It’s a problem that I’ve given myself with quite a few dishes since – just one of the crosses I have to bear for being awesome.
The Best Brownies Ever
200g dark chocolate
300g sugar (I like a mix of caster sugar and light soft brown)
75g ground almonds (or plain flour for nut free)
75g cocoa powder
150g white chocolate, broken into 1cm chunks
Optional: 100g walnuts (I usually opt not)
Grease a medium sized cake tin and dust with cocoa powder. Preheat the oven to 180C (Gas mark 4)
Melt butter in the microwave (or over a double boiler), add dark chocolate and stir until chocolate melts. Mixing thoroughly after each addition, add the sugar, then sieve in the flour & cocoa powder, then add the eggs one at a time. Add white chocolate and walnuts/biscuits (if using) and stir them so they are distributed evenly.
Pour batter into your cake tin and bake for 22-28 minutes until the top looks dry and begins to crack a little (the centre can still have a bit of a wobble – it will set as the brownies cool down). Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pan, not on a cake rack. Allow to cool for as long as you can bear (brownies rarely hit room temperature unmolested in my house), cut into squares/wedges, and serve – ideally with a scoop of banana ice cream.
My fixation on custard began with contemplating the immaculate (and indeed frequently imaginary) perfection of the gem-like berry tarts in patissiere windows. Trying to achieve this elusive standard became an obsession and I learned a few valuable lessons about custard along the way.
Classic Custard Tart
The first step on my journey to custard mastery was nailing down the classic set custard tart in shortcrust pastry. The challenge was that perfecting both elements – the custard and the pastry – pulls the chef in two different directions at the same time. The pastry must be crisp, flaky golden brown and structurally sound and the custard soft, gooey and unctuous but set from edge to edge.
The dilemma I had was that if I blind baked the base of the tart to perfection before adding the custard, then the pastry edges would burn while the custard set. An fiddly tinfoil rim to cover the exposed bits of pastry would slow but not solve this problem so perfection on all fronts at once seemed impossible. In addition the window for perfect custard (set from edge to edge, jiggly but not rubbery or god forbid scrambled) was miniscule.
I had nearly given up hope when I came across Heston’s Lemon Curd Tart recipe in Heston Blumenthal at Home. He advised heating the custard to 75C and then pouring into the tart case while still hot and baking until 82C, the temperature at which the custard would be cooked to perfection.
Understanding that the goal was simply to achieve the right temperature for the custard regardless of time spent in the oven opened a new window onto the problem. I realised that I could follow this method to get the right set on the custard, but also I could reduce the temperature of the oven so that it was no longer hot enough to brown the pastry any further after the blind bake.
So the final method then for my classic custard tart is to blind bake shortcrust pastry to perfection at 160C (about 20 mins, 10 mins with baking beans and 10 mins without). Pouring in custard preheated to 75C and turning the oven temp down to 110C and letting the custard cruise in gently to its perfect unctuous set over the course of about 45 mins to 1 hour with little to no chance of over cooking.
Portuguese custard tart
With Pastéis de Nata, a different pastry (flaky puff instead of crumbly shortcrust) radically changed the game. I knew that puff does not submit to blind baking – it rises so dramatically there would be no room left for me to put custard in. The custard and the puff simply *had to* be baked simultaneously, but the as tarts were so much smaller, time taken for the heat to penetrate to the centre of the custard was dramatically shorter. By the time the puff was cooked the custard within was rubbery and overdone.
Although the problem was inverted, the same insights informed my solution. Time and temperature were the key. I knew that puff pastry cooks best in a blazingly hot oven, and the custard was overcooking because it’s internal temperature was getting too high. If I froze the tarts in their tins before baking them, the cooking of the custard would be slowed down by it having to thaw. The pastry would be slowed too, but less so; the hot metal of the muffin tins would transfer heat rapidly.
After 20 mins at 220C, the puff pastry was golden brown, flaky and perfect, the custard still glossy and luxurious. I also found this method to have the handy bonus of making it easy to serve them warm straight out of the oven. A sprinkle of sugar and a lick of flame from a blowtorch was all I needed to finish them off perfectly
Other surprising Custards
Once I’d mastered the rules of these custard tarts I started to realise that many other dishes were custards in disguise. A cheesecake is a custard where the milk and cream has been replaced by soft cheese. A quiche is a savoury custard tart where scrambling has been promoted rather than studiously avoided. A bread pudding is a custard poured over diced buttered bread. The things I learned about custard informed my approach to mastering all of these dishes. Even scrambled eggs offered the opportunity to deploy insights like cooking them slowly in a bain marie for fine delicate curds. I even made delicious and delicate caramelized onion tartlets in the portuguese puff pastry style, replacing the milk with pureed caramelized onion.
As much as I learned about custard tarts by following this rabbit hole, I learned even more about my own relationship with obsession. You can always drill down deeper into something – anything – and find a hidden vein of golden detail worth mining out. But by exactly the same token, it’s impossible to learn everything in one lifetime so I always resolve to follow my obsessions where I find them for as long as I still find them interesting. I spent over a year obsessively experimenting with custard tarts and their infinite variations, and though my interest never fully waned, I do have a new obsession this year: gnocchi.
That’s what I said to myself late one Saturday evening in November after a supper club, looking at a batch of Tandoori marinated boneless chicken thighs that I had not-entirely-accidentally made too much of.
The fryer was still on. I tossed the chicken in a little gram flour and Indian spices. The red-brown yogurty marinade soaked up the flour. I picked it up by a corner and lowered just the tip of the battered bird into the boiling fat- watching bubbles accumulate around it before letting go and allowing it to slip beneath the roiling surface of the oil.
Between my three months in New Orleans and the Autumn Run, it’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to experiment with anything new, and therefore a long time since I’ve done any pay-what-you-want dates. But they’ll be back very soon – new dates for the new year, and I have over six months of ideas to try out.
In the upcoming supper clubs, you might see: muffaletta babka, charcoal-infused olive oil, honey and miso cured salmon, soy sauce creme brulee, bacon pannacotta, lacquered chicken ramen, smoked brisket, lemon-pepper bagels, Roquefort saucisson and more…
These dates will be on a pay-what-you-want model (cash or card), based on how much you think the evening is worth and you are encouraged to bring your own beverages. There is an £8 corkage charge per bottle.
Dates on Feb 7th, 8th, 22nd, 23rd and March 22nd, 23rd, 29th, and 30th have been announced and are open for booking – stay tuned for more dates coming soon.