Monday, August 08, 2011


Thought I'd write a quick post about the joys of Focaccia, which is an Italian flat bread for those of you not familiar with it. I first tasted Focaccia when I was an exchange student at the Italian University of Padova, and have loved it ever since. It has a light yet doughy texture, with a subtle chew, and is very often cooked with crusty salt and herbs - my favourite way of preparing it.

Two shallow Focaccia ready to go in the oven
The best thing about Focaccia as far as I'm concerned is that it can be prepared so easily - that is if you have a bread machine at least. Not that I bake bread in a bread machine, that really wouldn't be possible with Focaccia. It's the kneading and rising side of things that I use it for. Some people love to knead I know, they see it as a source of relaxation, but to me it's simply a pain in the hands!

My bread machine is an old Panasonic model, well over ten years of service but never misses a beat. It has a good selection of different settings, but only one is much used in my household, 'Pizza'. This is only a 45 minute cycle, but provided you give your dough a good hour or two once the bread machine cycle has run then, it works well for a whole range of different Italian style flat breads, not least of which is Focaccia.

Here's the recipe I use. This amount will do for a large lasagne style deep dish, or for two regular flan dishes as shown in the pictures.
  • 1 tsp dried yeast
  • 450g Bread Flour
  • 1½ tsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 275ml water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (plus extra for coating the pan and for drizzling)
The method is quite simple:
  1. Empty the yeast into the bottom of the bread machine bucket, add the flour on top, then sprinkle with the salt and the sugar, pour on the water, and finally add the olive oil.
  2. Let the machine run the Pizza cycle or similar, then leave the dough undisturbed for an hour or so.
  3. After the hour is up, pour a generous amount of olive oil into a deep baking dish and empty the dough out into it. Turn the dough in the olive oil to coat it, knocking it back and pushing firmly into all the corners so that it fits the rectangle. Leave for another hour or so somewhere warm, covered in a tea towel.
  4. After the second hour is up your dough should be quite risen. Now push your finger deep down into the dough, but not quite to the bottom, to make the characteristic holes. Scatter generously with rosemary leaves and sea salt, and drizzle with more olive oil.
  5. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200ÂșC for 15-20 minutes until as brown as you prefer.
  6. Leave to cool briefly, for as long as you can resist that gorgeous, soft, herby and salty delight ...
Topping and other flavours can be added according to season and taste, this year my wild garlic with caramelised lemon zest worked particularly well.

Wild garlic and caramelised lemon zest at the front, plain wild garlic at the back.

If you'd like to see more pictures of my Focaccia's being prepared, head over to my Focaccia pictures in Picasa Web Albums.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Red Devil" Cheese Scone Noses: A Comic Relief Special

Way back in 1988 a new institution was born in this country - Comic Relief. I was back in School back then, but I remember it quite distinctly, as a friend and I (Ben Clover I seem to remember) had been given special dispensation to stay up late and watch the live broadcast on the TV, in the sixth form common room. Powered only by a variety of hot drinks, plenty of toast, and an army of assorted spreads, we made it through right to the end of transmission. I can't for the life of me remember much about the broadcast, except for the strong sense that things were amiss in large chunks of Africa, and that Lenny Henry wasn't entirely sure what was going on for most of the programme, but at least I can say I was there.

Fast forward to 2011 and Comic Relief it still with us, and as fab as ever. Tomorrow is comic relief day, and for once I decided to cook in honour of it, and something a bit unusual to boot. A spicy - and very red - variation on my Mum's cheese scones.

Red Devil Cheese Scone Noses
Now my Mum's cheese scones are - of course - the best cheese scones on the planet. Aren't all Mum's cheese scones? I make them myself quite often, they're a particularly brilliant way of using up milk and cheese which has started to lose its lustre, shall we say. I've even done variations, my Brie & Lemon Balm Scones the most successful so far. But tonight I thought I'd push the boat out, and try something a bit ... well ... odd.

The most long running theme of Comic Relief has to be the red nose, and in fact the whole enterprise is often referred to as Red Nose Day - or RND as it's now cropping up on Twitter. So what, I figured about Red Nose Scones? But not just plain old red noses, but spicy, hot, cheesy red noses. To the kitchen! Actually, I had no way of making any any red food at all at this point, bar adding vast quantities of tomato puree, but luckily my neighbour Angela was happy to share some food colouring that she had spare, so I was in business.

But back to the recipe. Really simple, First here's the cheese scone recipe, sans Comic Reliefness ...

"Red Devil" Cheese Scone Noses

by , March 17th, 2011

A spicey twist on a classic cheese scone recipe, perfect for comedy events. Should take about or so to prepare, , so .

  • 450g plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 200g strong cheddar cheese, grated
  • 100g butter, thickly diced
  • milk to mix, up to ½ pint
Now that will make you fab cheese scones, which need to be shaped and baked in the usual way. I have a trick (actually, my Mum has a trick) with the preparation of the dough too, but that'll have to wait till another time. The processor took a nasty slice off my finger, so my typing's a bit slow tonight ...

To make my RND Red Devils you just need to make the following additions:
  • 4 teaspoons of red food colouring (Less than four might well work, but I had four, so I used four. They do need to be REALLY red, after all)
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 dash hot sauce, e.g. tabasco or similar
  • 1 tablespoon of tomato puree

Mix all the dry ingredients in a food processor, then add the butter and process briefly. Add the cheese, process briefly again and then add the food coluring, the hot sauce and the tomato puree. Then start to add the milk with the machine running until the mixture forms a firm ball inside the machine.

Shape into walnut shaped balls and bake in a fan oven at 180° for 15 minutes.
Cool on a wire rack.

What you should end up with is something like this:

Front lot ready for the oven, back lot are baked already and now cooling
With the quantities from the recipe above you should end up with at least 30 red devil noses, hopefully more. Personally I got 35 out of it (it may have been 36 actually - I've lost track of how many I've eaten already).

I think they would be fab split in half whilst still warm, and served with cold butter, especially a chive or garlic butter, but they need to go to work tomorrow to join the other baked goods being sold to raise money for charity. Of course everyone else will be producing sweet cakes and the like, so chances are my little red devils might be coming home again with me - but then again you never know. They are damn tasty, and on comic relief day anything might happen ....

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Brasato di Cervo (Braised Venison)

Well that's Christmas over for another year, and for the first time in many years we've not been able to get to Italy to see the other side of the family and celebrate with them. There's a very good reason we've not been keen to travel far, the arrival of our Son, Max, but that doesn't mean we're not disappointed and feeling a bit low about it. The Italian trip has become something of an institution and it feels like something is missing somehow.

Luckily Nonna did manage to visit before Christmas and meet her grandson briefly in December, and she also brought practically an entire suitcase full of food for us, mostly local from the region. I swear she thinks I starve her daughter back here in England, and the food here is desperately in need of some hearty Italian additions! I have to admit I struggle to disagree given what she brought, the small crunchy breads called Bibanesi for example which I love and can't find in this country. There's also the wonderful Cotechino, a form of pork sausage that's probably quite bad for you but tastes delicious, especially when served with puy lentils cooked with vegetables and butter. There's also the truly local food, venison shot in the Italian alps by the Italians father or one of his friends - it's never entirely clear who shot what it seems. This time around we had mince and something labelled "Rosbeaf Cervo", which I think was some sort of topside joint. Either way I decided to do it in Nonna's style, something I've had many times when visiting the in-laws, a braised dish with root vegetables and wine.

Brasato di Cervo

The trouble with wild food is that you're never entirely sure what you're getting. Farmed food has the reliability of mass production at least, if not the flavour of wild, but it does mean that when a cut ends up on your kitchen sideboard you can't be 100% sure how best to cook it. Braising is something of a fallback in this respect, as there are very few cuts that won't be delicious after slow cooking in a moist flavour rich environment. This dish is something I've seen made a lot in Italy by the Italians mother as well, so I did have something of a head start on it, plus a handy recipe check just a phone call away.

The meat as it arrived - just what is this?!
Nonna is actually a fabulous cook, but in that home style way that is so often overlooked. She cooks simple food incredibly well, something which perhaps could be said is a hallmark of all great Italian cuisine, but something that can be tricky to replicate back home. I find the tendency is to overdo the frippary and miss  the more basic - but critical - aspects of the cooking, which is why proper Italian food is so hard to find outside of Italy. By that I mean the underlying aspects such as how long to cook each part of the recipe, and the correct quantities of each of the ingredients.

This brasato recipe is a case in point, deceptively simple, easy to make, but hard to master. You start with a quick sofritto, then spend some time browning the meat exceptionally well, next deglaze with white wine and then very slow cook until tender.

Step 1: Sofritto

Sofritto is the Italian word for what the French call a mirepoix, a combination of onion, carrot and celery chopped into small dice that is slowly fried in oil or butter to form the base of other dishes. Here is is used as the base flavour for the braise, and also as the sauce used to dress some pasta for the primo.

Often when I cook onions I prefer to do them long and slow, creating an underlying sweetness and mellow onion flavour, but seeing as this is a slow braise anyway there's not so much need. One thing that is important though is to add the ingredients one by one, not all together. This means you can more accurately judge different lengths of cooking for different vegetables, and also that you won't overload the pan cooling it down. The golden rule is:
  • Onion first, 5 minutes or do
  • Carrots next, another 5 minutes or maybe a few more
  • Celerey, for just 3 minutes or even less
Now I should be using celery here, but a trick I've used a few times in the past is to swap this for celeriac leaves instead. I first started to do this as I had some celeriac leaves left over and didn't want to throw them away, but have found that they flavour just as well as celery and in some ways add more interesting notes and texture to a dish. I love the way the leaves end up as speckled flecks of green through the sauce.

Onions in first
Then the carrots after 5 minutes
Next some rosemary and bay
Now for the roughly chopped celeriac leaves
The finished sofritto
I also used a little garlic in this recipe, sliced thickly and added after the celeriac leaves. No need to cook it out, it will soften and flavour the sauce in the long slow braising. There's also some rosemary and bay, but you can add whatever herbs you like really or have available. I wouldn't bother adding dried though, there won't be much flavour left from them by the end.

Thickly sliced garlic
Step 2: Frying the Meat

Once the vegetables have been cooked till just softening it's the meat's turn. Simply turn the sofritto out into a dish on the side, and a little more oil into your pan and then get the meat frying.

Sofritto left on the side. Doesn't matter if it cools down a little, it'll soon be hot again.
Meat is often browned before cooking, and this was once thought to 'seal the meat', keeping it juicy by creating a crust on the outside that keeps moisture in. It's now pretty well known though that this simply isn't true, moisture can escape just as easily from browned meat, what keeps it moist is the cooking technique. What browning does do though is create the Maillard reaction, that wonderful rich dark brown colour imparts all sorts of delicious flavours to the dish.

As usual in many recipes the meat is first tossed in seasoned flour, which will act as a thickener for the sauce. Unusually though the meat is browned for a very long time, 15 minutes or longer. This is something that I've learned from Nonna, and is an absolutely critical part of this dish. It imparts such a deep an rich flavour to the finished brasato it has to be tasted to be be believed!

The meat tossed in seasoned flour
The very well browned meat
The wine has just been added, but the pan not yet deglazed.
Sofritto and meat together, ready for braising.

Once the meat has had it's 15-20 minute browning, delgaze with a generous glass of white wine, and then add the sofritto back in and it's ready for the long slow braise.

Interesting point here - the addition of white wine rather than red wine is another hall mark of Italian cooking that I've discovered. More often than not I'd have used red wine before I met the Italian, but have since learned that it is much more usual to use white wine even in red meat dishes, and I think it does produce a finer result.

Step 3: The long slow braise

Finally, time to do nothing! All you need do now is get the meat on a very slow heat, cover it and leave it alone. When I say very slow, you should be able to see the odd bubble coming up from the bottom of the dish but nothing more than that. The very worst thing you can do to a braise is cook it fast, nothing will toughen meat up quicker. As for timing, you should be aiming for at least 2 hours for a piece this size I would say, longer for larger. If it starts to dry out at all just add a tablespoon or two of water.

The finished dish, a couple of hours later.
Serving: Primo and Secondo

Back home in Italy this would probably be served in the traditional way, primo first then secondo, with the same dish providing the sauce for both. Pasta and rice are usually only served as a 'primo' course, not as a main, with meat and vegetables or salad as a 'secondo' course. A braise like this is perfect as you have a sauce for both.

First take out the meat and leave it to rest as usual - this will help the meat to become even more tender as it relaxes. For this dish I then blitzed some of the sauce in a food processor to make a smoother sauce for some fresh pasta, keeping about half the sauce in the pan with the resting meat.

Sauce on the left for meat, water boiling for pasta, and blitzed pasta sauce warming.
Fresh egg tagliatelle. Hand cut rather than machine cut this time, so a bit rough!
Fresh pasta like this really only needs a minute or so cooking, depending how thinly you've rolled it. I served the braise with some dauphinois potatoes left over from New Year's Eve's dish, so pretty easy food all in.

The primo, fresh egg tagliatelle with the sauce slightly blitzed.
Secondo, slices of braised meat and dauphinois, dressed with the braising sauce.
Hopefully this dish doesn't look too complex, and I hope you'll find time to try it. The flavours really are wonderful, and of course you get leftovers so you only have to cook it once and you can get several meals out of it.

P.S. There's a full library of images from this dish on my Picasa Web Album, Brasato di Cervo. This also includes pictures of making beef, red wine and wild mushroom ravioli - more left overs from New Year. When making pasta it's always a good idea to make a fair bit as you can either freeze it or dry it for another time. Making ravioli like this is a great way of using up leftovers too.


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