Portuguese Custard Tarts

Secret 2nd Dessert from my August 8th Supper Club

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Read any recipe that involves puff pastry and you’ll likely be reassured to learn that the laborious and Byzantine of making your own puff pastry is entirely unnecessary – a roll you buy from the supermarket is just as good.

Whoever wrote that recipe is a liar. They are a liar who doesn’t want you to enjoy really good puff pastry. They lied to you twice: first when they told you making puff pastry is difficult, and then again when they told you that premade pastry is an acceptable substitute. You can learn how to do it yourself in under six minutes by watching this video and even if you screw it up, it will probably still be the best puff pastry you’ve had in your life. That’s how much better it is when you make it yourself.

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These custard tarts are the opposite of the almond shortcrust tart I blogged about in June, where I blind baked the shortcrust pastry until it was done and then poured in hot custard and put it back in the the oven turned all the way down to slowly bring the custard up to the temperature where it would set without further browning the pastry. For the Portuguese custard tarts, which can’t be blind baked, the challenge is to brown the pastry without overcooking the custard. Start with cold custard (you can even assemble the tarts the night before and put them in the freezer, cooking them straight from frozen.) Turn the oven up hot – 230-250 C (depending on your oven). The pastry, which is in contact with the metal of the tin, will respond faster to the heat, and will brown and puff up within 5-10 minutes. You want the custard to set to a unctuous, gooey consistency, and this will depend on how deep the tarts are filled and how cold they were when you began, but once the pastry is cooked you can turn the oven down and finish them off slowly.

Finally, sprinkle a little brown sugar on top of the tarts and caramelise it with a blowtorch. If you don’t have a blowtorch, try dousing the sugar with a teaspoonful of brandy (or burbon) and lighting it. Brandy certainly isn’t going to make these little beauties any worse.
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June Supper club: Fri 5th, Sat 13th. Strawberries and Fried Chicken

Update: June 13th now full also. No further dates for the June menu available – check back for July date(s) TBA shortly.

UPDATE: Extra date added due to popular demand. Friday 5th sold out. Book now for Saturday 13th June

IMG_1572Here we are again already. After the sell-out supper club on the 9th May, I really felt like I owed it to everyone to push the boat out for the June instalment. Without further ado then, here’s the menu:

  • Starter: Crab/apple salad
    (Vegetarian: Avocado salad)
  • Main course: Spicy buttermilk & cornmeal fried chicken with green vegetable medley
    (Vegetarian: Fried risotto primavera and courgette fritter with green vegetable medley)
  • Dessert: Strawberry custard tart with almond shortcrust pastry

Oxford strawberries are running a little late this season, but I still feel confident that I’m going to have some in time for the supper club, one way or another. I continue to be delighted by this season’s asparagus from Medley Manor farm, so that’s going to be making a reappearance alongside the fried chicken (pictured above) that I’ve been patiently tweaking for weeks now. I’ve also got a secret or two up my sleeve this month but you’ll have to attend to find out, or else read and weep about them on the blog here the next week.

As ever please let me know when booking if you have any dietary requirements. I’m already planning for vegetarian and gluten-free alternatives but it’s still very important that I know numbers for these, and if you have anything else you can’t eat please, let me know in plenty of time and I’ll find some way to accommodate you.

BOOK HERE, BOOK EARLY, BOOK OFTEN

Supper Club Info

Friday 5th June (SOLD OUT)
The Church Farmhouse, Holton, OX33 1PR. 7.30pm
Price: Pay what you want, BYOB

Saturday 13th June
205 Divinity Road, Oxford OX4 1LS 7.30pm
Price: Pay what you want, BYOB

Lamb Casserole

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Sometimes a simple thing stays with you. This blog is meant to be for my own ideas, but I can’t talk about my dish without first telling you about a byriani that’s been living in my head for a while now.IMG_0057

It was from a London restaurant called The Dock Kitchen (I don’t review restaurants but I urge you to go there if you get the chance). One of their specialities is a lamb byriani that surprised and amazed me.

It has to be ordered for at least two people, and the price will be more than you’ve ever thought of paying for a bowl of rice and meat. It comes to the table in an earthenware pot that’s been sealed with a dough lid baked golden brown, anointed with rosewater and garnished with a tiny square of gold leaf on it – an extravagant touch that screams “this is valuable!” and does quite a bit to reframe your perception of a dish made from a cheap cut of meat. You also get a small platter of cashew nuts, pomegranate seeds, rose petals, crispy onions and coriander leaves, as well as a copper saucepan of rich, thick sauce. You crack the bread seal with a spoon as if it were a hard boiled egg and serve yourself from the pot of slow cooked lamb nestled within the saffron rice. And beautiful as all of that is, none of that is the reason I can’t forget this dish.

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After eating too many stewed dishes where the meat was either undercooked and chewy, or was tender but had lost all its flavour to the sauce, I’d all but given up on casseroles with long cooking times. I thought the tradeoff was inevitable for these cuts – “Cheap for a reason” I’d told myself, and if I wanted better I’d just have to pay more. My first bite of this byriani did not merely prove me wrong, it completely blew my mind. Each piece of lamb was so tender you could have cut it with a spoon, but the flavour was still there in the meat itself.

It’s the simple things.

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Once I knew that the tradeoff was not inevitable, I was determined not to resign myself to it, and I slow cooked lamb over and over until I figured out how to get it right. This recipe is not a re-creation of The Dock Kitchen’s byriani, but it is heavily inspired by my memory of it.
Continue reading “Lamb Casserole”

Chicken Liver Pate

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There’s no accounting for taste. This goes double for delicacies. Don’t get me wrong – I like truffles, caviar and champagne just fine, but there’s no rational basis for the  abnormally high desirability that drives fish eggs, fungus and fizzy wine to their infamous price tags.
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For example, if you’d told me after the first time I’d tried them that chicken livers were an expensive delicacy, I’d easily believe it. And I could construct an explanation that makes sense: the quality most prized in meat seems to be tenderness – cuts like fillet steak and lamb cutlets run much dearer than brisket or shoulder. But in them, tenderness comes at the expense of flavour. Chicken livers, like most types of offal in fact, are both exceptionally tender and have a bold, distinctive flavour of their own. Plus you only get one liver, maybe a couple of ounces, per chicken. So if they taste amazing AND they’re limited availability – it makes perfect sense that they would be a rare delicacy with a price to match. I mean, if you had to pick one word to describe chicken liver pate, it would be “rich”.

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But no. Chicken livers are one of the cheapest cuts you can buy. And I don’t understand why. Are they difficult to prepare, or do they take a long time to cook? No, you can fry them and have them on toast with a sherry cream sauce inside of ten minutes – easier than a steak. Is it hard to turn them into something that both looks elegant and tastes luxurious? Nope – the pate recipe here is beautiful and almost dangerously simple. Are they slimy and disgusting to handle when raw? Well, yes, but that hasn’t stopped oysters from entering the echelon of extravagance, they have to be EATEN while they’re slimy, disgusting and raw.

Are chicken livers totally capable of being something completely decadent, a cut fit for a king at a price suitable for a pauper? Yes. I don’t know why they aren’t a delicacy. But I’m taking advantage.

Continue reading “Chicken Liver Pate”

Ratatouille

Ratatouille cooked dishThe most powerful thing a dish can do is to take you back in time.

The ratatouille in the Pixar film of the same name transports a jaded restaurant critic back to his mother’s kitchen when he was a boy. Like Proust’s madelaines, this simple peasant dish turns out to have its hooks in a very personal past.

The version of the ratatouille in the movie was developed by Thomas Keller, chef of The French Laundry. In turn, his dish is based on the ratatouille confit byaldi created by Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, which broke with the old traditions and has been broken from again since. The name comes from an old Turkish dish of stuffed aubergine called “Imam bayaldi” – because when he tasted the dish “the Imam fainted”.

The history this dish has in both haute cuisine and peasant fare, in great and unknown chefs, and in movie-makers, restaurant critics and holy men – all of whom have found something special in the dish or in something like it – leads me to feel a really special connection to its past when I make it.

But the first time I tasted confit byaldi, I had the opposite of a Proustian reaction. It did not stir up old memories, because this was like no ratatouille I had ever tasted before. So for me, this dish isn’t just a time machine; it’s also a rocket ship – it takes me to a place that’s out of this world.

Ratatouille plated above

Ratatouille Confit Byaldi

(converted from The French Laundry cookbook)

  • ~ 45ml neutral oil (eg: sunflower or vegetable)
  • 2 medium sized onions, finely sliced
  • 1 red or yellow bell pepper (or a mix of both), cored, seeded and finely sliced
  • Bouquet garni (2 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs parsley and a bay leaf, tied in a bundle)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves chopped garlic
  • 2tsp (10ml) olive oil
  • 2 sprigs of fresh thyme, very finely chopped

Also: sliced (ideally on a mandolin) into rounds ~2mm thick:

  • 1 whole courgette
  • 1 whole aubergine
  • 3 medium/large tomatoes

Preheat the oven to 135C/ Gas mark 1

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onions, peppers and bouquet garni, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened but not browned. Remove the bouquet garni and spread the mixture in an even layer in a 12″ round ovenproof dish with a tight-fitting lid.

Arrange the sliced vegetables over the onions and peppers, beginning at the outside of the pan and working towards the centre, alternating and overlapping them (as in the photo)

Ratatouille raw window

Mix the garlic, oil, thyme and some salt and pepper to taste and drizzle over the vegetables. Cover with a lid and bake for 2 1/2 hours.

Remove the lid and check the vegetables (the aubergine will take the longest to cook). They should have softened and be cooked or almost cooked. Return to the oven without the lid for 30 minutes more.

Ratatouille plated 30deg

Tips for Geeks

I haven’t made many changes from the recipe given in The French Laundry Cookbook – just converted the quantities to what worked for me. The only major change is that, as well as the aubergine, courgette and tomato, Thomas Keller’s recipe also has sliced yellow squash, which adds another contrasting colour to the sliced vegetables. I wasn’t able to find any yellow squash. If you can, include it. If not, it will still be delicious.

The presentation of this ratatouille is markedly improved if the slices of vegetables are all around the same size. Usually, this will mean buying the slenderest aubergines and the thickest courgettes available. If there is still too much difference in size, you can cut rounds out of the larger slices with a cookie cutter.

Ratatouille raw top

Tomatoes are hard to cut thinly, even on the mandolin. It helps if they’re firm fleshed, and if your blade is sharp and you slice confidently. You’ll still probably end up with a lot of irregular offcuts.

Fiddly, meticulous preparation like arranging loads of overlapping slices is exactly the kind of thing I love. If you’re not a fan, don’t be put off – it looks like it should take forever, but it’s really not that bad.

Like most braises, it will improve in the fridge overnight, so you can make it the day before anyway.

My recommendation for serving this ratatouille: either with gnocchi or crusty bread. It’s also a great to accompany roast chicken.

Ratatouille cooked corner

Un-Roast Chicken

Sliced breast and ballotine

There’s no meal more perfect than a classic roast chicken for Sunday lunch with blah blah tradition family gravy blah.

The legal requirement of anyone writing about roast chicken to recollect food memories and discurse on the essence of tradition and family dinners. It is left to authorial prerogative to decide whether it was a mother or a grandmother accountable for roasting the bird, and we get to select your own unique method for getting the impeccably crispy skin or the most succulent meat – popular choices include basting and an internally applied lemon.
The cold hard truth is that the Arcadian ideal of roast chicken lingers large in the memory but lacks a little in reality.

Chicken jointed

Lets break it down.

Chicken, like every other animal, has a number of different cuts that are all cooked best in completely different ways. The largest cuts of chicken are the breast, which is a lean, tender cut that doesn’t need a lot of cooking, and the legs, which are tougher, fattier, and are best cooked for longer at a low temperature. This means that by the time the legs of your chicken have completed roasting, the breast is dry and overdone.

“Dry and overdone” is what everyone has been drilled to learn is the minimum standard that poultry should be cooked to, but this conventional wisdom is safe to discard. On health grounds, there is no scientific justification to treat poultry differently from any other meat. Perfectly cooked chicken (with an internal temperature around the 60-65C mark) should be illegal only because it is so delicious.

Breast vac packed

To get roast chicken right, some traditional methods are going to be replaced by modern technique and technology. The bird isn’t going to make it to the table in one piece – we’ll be disassembling it. And technically speaking, we’re not going to be “roasting” anything, but rather cooking it sous vide in a temperature controlled water bath. But if that mythic memory of the perfect roast chicken can ever be truly replicated, this is the closest I’ve come to it.

We’re keeping the stuffing though. Some traditions are sacred.

Continue reading “Un-Roast Chicken”

Baba Ganoush and Roasted Red Peppers

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The Genie of the Dish

It had me right from the name. Baba ganoush. There’s something impossibly magical about it. “Baba” conjures to mind Ali Baba – “ganoush” sounds like “whoosh” – its name is like a genie – a mystical and wondrous thing emerging from the smoke. Its taste is too.

It’s the smoky flavour, caused by blackening the skin of the aubergene, that for me is the enchantment of this dish. The alchemy of combining the tastes of grassy aubergine, smoke, nutty tahini and the acid of the lemon juice creates an elixir that in France is called, without exaggeration, “caviar d’aubergene”.

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The spiritual connection with caviar has lead me in the past to serve this dish on blinis, with great sucess. And because I already having a barbecue going to blacken the aubergine, I like to roast some peppers as well and serve them with the baba ganoush. Mischiveously, the peppers do a bit of a disappearing act when you char them, so do three times as many as you think you’re going to need. They keep well anyway, in the fridge, under a slick of olive oil.

Serve with flatbread to dip or on blinis. You can also use as a side dish for grilled chicken or lamb. Or, do what I do; keep a big bowl of baba ganoush in the fridge, and dip into it anything that’s less runny than it is. Including fingers.

Baba Ganoush with Roasted Red Peppers

For the Roasted Red Peppers:

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