Friday, 23 October 2015

Homemade mushroom soup, elevated by the power of bacon

A little bit of dirt never hurt anyone. At least this is what I tell myself whenever I go about the business of cleaning mushrooms. Which in itself can be a rather complex business. If you didn't already know, there are two trains of thought when it comes to preparing edible fungi. The first is the artis-anal method of gently sweeping specks of detritus from your beloved champignons with a small pastry brush or damp cloth. Gently, gently, swish, swish you must go. Picking and scrutinising each delicate trumpet at a time and holding up to the light, before kissing each musty dome and placing down onto a (clean) tea towel. Preparing mushrooms in this way can take anything up to twelve hours.

The second, more prosaic approach is to quickly blast the buggers in a colander under a cold tap, along with a brusque fondle. A sort of jazz hands whisk and boff, your shrooms will be clean in seconds. The water will not do your mushrooms any harm at all. They will not act like sponges and draw the water in. Their earthy essence will not be diluted. Some French men may cry but your mushrooms will be OK, OK?

With all that in mind, I do still sort of hover in between. I will often start off with the prerequisite flourish of a true gourmand; frilly shirt, dancing around the kitchen to Debussy, running a pair of morels through my fingers like a pair of baoding balls; an OXO silicone brush in the other hand.

However, the stark realisation that I am actually preparing value range 'whites' soon hits me.

So, into the sink they go.

And yet, as soon as those mushrooms hit the pan, I will always, always spot a small, dark crumb of compost and this happened to me the other day when I was making some soup. You sort of sigh at first and feel deflated but in all seriousness, does it really matter? Eating that small bit of mud? I've eaten carrots straight out of the ground before. Hell, I used to eat dirt on a regular basis and it never caused me any harm. Aside from the regular bouts of worming medicine that Mum used to give us. God, that pink stuff was dreadful. But no, mud is good for you. Oomska, wellingtons, growing up on farms* and all that.

Anyway, I made mushroom soup the other day and bloody good mushroom soup it was too. And it was bloody good because I decided to pop some bacon into the mix. You might think that this is a no-brainer. Bacon will improve any given situation, especially where dormant fears about mud are concerned. But adding lardons really does elevate things as the inherent saltiness (and not to forgetting to mention meaty flavour) pairs up wonderfully with the hearty, velvet quality of a good mushroom soup.

Definitely one for autumn, as skies turn grey and golden leaves drop, onto barren patches of earth littered with dusty brown caps. Caps dusted with dirt.

Homemade mushroom soup, elevated by the power of bacon - serves four

The cleaning and cooking process of mushrooms

500gms white mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
30gms dried porcini mushrooms
150gms bacon lardons
500ml vegetable stock
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced 
3 or 4 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
Butter, for frying
Milk, for diluting
Salt and black pepper, for seasoning

Eat with bread and butter

First soak the dried porcini mushrooms by placing in a bowl and covering with boiling water. Leave for 20 minutes to rehydrate.

Meanwhile, add a healthy knob of butter to a large saucepan and place on the hob over a medium heat. Melt the butter and then add the onion to the pan, stirring through every now and then. After 10 minutes, the onion will have softened and begun to caramelise, so add the garlic and picked thyme leaves. Stir through for another couple of minutes or so.

Drain and press the dried mushrooms through a sieve, reserving the brown liquor in a bowl and then add the mushrooms to the pan. Again, stir and gently fry off for another 5 minutes. Then add the bulk of the white mushroom and stir through. After ten minutes or so the mushrooms will have cooked down and become soft so at this point add the reserved mushroom liquor and vegetable stock. Be wary with the liquor and don't pour it all in, as some grittier bits might be at the bottom. Bits that are a lot grittier than mud. Bring up to a simmer and gently cook for another 8-10 minutes. 

Leave to cool slightly before blitzing in a blender and then place in a clean saucepan. Depending on how you like your soup, you can let down the thickness a bit by adding a splash of milk. Taste for seasoning

Just before serving, heat up the soup and place a frying pan on the hob over a high heat. Toss the lardons in and keep giving them a good old toss until cooked through and crispy.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and place a good portion of bacon in the centre. Finish with a extra sprinkling of cracked black pepper and make sure you have some buttered bread to dip in.

This is MY spoon

*I didn't grow up on a farm but I did live near a field.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream with Cardamom and Orange Brownie and Candied Orange

I have witnessed first hand, on many an occasion now, what it takes to quenelle ice cream. And when you watch someone do it confidently and deftly, with two spoons, floating, crossing and spinning in this kind of fluid motion, to create this perfectly smooth egg; well, it's quite hypnotic. Mores to the point, when you watch someone who knows what they are doing, it also looks quite easy. 

The last time I saw someone quenelle under my nose was when I attended a masterclass in pastry at The Cookery School in Great Portland Street, as organised by Great British Chefs and led by Graham Hornigold, who is Excutive Pastry Chef for the Hakkasan Group. We covered various desserts and techniques, including a fantastic twist on apple tart tatin with vanilla ice cream and leading the way on the quenelling front wasn't Graham himself but his right-hand man Daniel Pearse. And he was doing it with one spoon.

Holding a tub of speckled, yellow frozen cream, a quick skim across the surface was all it took, before quickly drawing it back over again, to add an extra layer. Daniel then ran the spoon, oh so quickly across the base of his palm, along his life line and then placed it on the plate. On and on he went, continuing in this way, zipping down perfect ovals onto china. Down on twenty plates all told and all within the blink of an eye. I don't think I can reiterate how quick he was. Apart from saying, he was very, very, very quick and it was a marvel to behold.

It was also mildly annoying because I can't quenelle for toffee. I have been trying for years now and I still haven't quite got the hang of it. Despite lolloping tongue and squinting eye, my efforts always resemble a whizz bang, sharted delivery from a hen that has been egg-bound for five days. 

I really don't know what to do about it. Although I suspect the key factor is to let your ice cream come up to the perfect temperature before attempting any artful ellipsoidalising (sic). I know Häagen-Dazs recommend that you leave their ice cream out of the freezer for a required 12 minutes before any attempt is made to scoop. And this does seem to be the right amount of time. But the window of opportunity to work in after that always seems to be so narrow. So, so narrow.

At least, this is what I found when I came up with this recipe to showcase the release of a new ice cream from Häagen-Dazs, a luxuriant coffee flavour that has been on the market around the globe for a while but never in this country. Interestingly, when I tweeted that I had got my hands on a tub of the stuff, a gleeful and slightly jealous thrust of hands went up, rejoicing that at last it was on these shores. Personally, I had some doubts at first, having blasted my taste buds on some harsh bitter incarnations in the past. However, in their indomitable way, those cod Scandinavians from New Yoike have nailed it again, with a creamy, frothy mouthful of java that really is quite delightful.

To match the rich coffee notes of the ice cream, I decided to pair up two tried and tested partners in the shape and form of chocolate, cardamom and orange. Wait, that's three but all three flavours do work very well with coffee. I would say that this combination of smooth coffee; astringent, dark cocoa; spicy, warm, almost gingery tang; and a sharp, sweet citrus kick is one of my most accomplished desserts to date. But then I would be bragging and no one likes a bragger. Especially one who can't really quenelle.

With that in mind, when plating this up, you might want to go for good old fashioned dollops of ice cream, rather than the egg shaped ones. Unless of course, you are as fast and accomplished as that Daniel Pearce. I haven't seen anyone as quick as him yet though.

Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream with Cardamom and Orange Brownie and Candied Orange - serves 8


For the brownie

100gms plain flour
80gms cocoa powder
4 eggs
250gms caster sugar
200gms butter, cubed (plus extra for greasing)
300gms dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 orange, zested and juiced
8 cardamom pods

For the candied orange

2 oranges
350mls water
150gms caster sugar

To serve
1 tub of Häagen-Dazs Coffee Ice Cream
icing sugar, for dusting


First, preheat your oven to 180C. Then take a square baking tin, approx 20cm across and line with baking paper, making sure that there is some left to overhang on either side of the tin (helps lift the brownie slab out see). Grease the paper and sides of the tin with the butter.

Place a pan of water on the hob and bring it to a simmer. Then place the chocolate pieces and butter cubes into a bowl and sit on top of the water to slowly melt. Whilst that is going on, crack the cardamom pods and take out the black seeds and crush in a pestle and mortar, until they become a fine powder. When the chocolate and butter has all melted, tip in the cardamom, orange zest and juice and stir through. Take the pan off the heat and leave for the bowl on top, so that everything stays melted and warm and so that the flavours can infuse.

Next, place the eggs and sugar into a bowl and whisk them together with an electric whisk, until the mixture becomes light and fluffy. Sieve in the flour and cocoa into the bowl and fold with a spoon to incorporate together. Then slowly pour the melted chocolate in, folding gently and trying not to beat any of the air out.

Pour the mixture into the square lined tin and give it a shake, so that the mixture distributes evenly and then pop it into the oven on the middle shelf for 20-25 minutes, or until the top is firm to the touch. (Don't worry if the centre still seems wobbly, you want a bit of goo) When done, take out and  leave to cool in the tin but keep at room temperature.

To make the candied orange, simply half each orange and then thinly slice each half into moon-like segments. Place the water and sugar into a saucepan, put on the hob and bring to the boil and then tip the orange segments in. Continue to boil for 10 minutes or so, turn the segments every now and then. And then reduce the heat to a low simmer and leave to gently bubble away for 30 minutes. The syrup will reduce and the orange will cook through completely and glaze. When done, lift the oranges out and leave to cool on a wire rack, reserving the orange syrup left behind.

Before plating up, take the ice cream out of the freezer and allow it to warm up for 12 minutes. To serve, arrange five segments of candied orange on each plate. Then, sieve a fine dusting of icing sugar over the brownie slab and then using a sharp knife, cut out rectangle slices and place at an angle away from the orange segments. Scoop or quenelle a healthy spoonful of the ice cream and place in the centre. Finish by drizzling over some of the reserved orange syrup around the outside of the plate.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Fok-ka-chia with Cheese

I once got into this really big argument with a good friend of mine, who goes by the moniker of Big Al. I say big argument, it was a small argument really. But at the time it felt that a lot was at stake. It was over the pronounciation of focaccia, that well known italian flat bread, often found to be peppered with herbs, olives or dried tomatoes on top. We were actually standing in a deli at the time, in Toronto; you know, that one in Canada. And from memory, it was in a deli situated in a very hip and bohemian part of town. Rough around the edges yet blossoming with aromas of patchouli oil and coffee and shop signs announcing talk of the 'internet'. A place called Yongesville. Or something.

Anyway, like two plums, we stood in that deli for an inordinate amount of time, letting people brush past us to get to the front, whilst we took everything in. Gazing from a distance at the curious meats hanging, the cheeses chilling and the vast amount of bread that was on display, we simply murmered to each other. No proper conversation. Just a sort of furtive, whispered bumbling, with no real movement of lips. 

"Um, wha...what do you er think? Do we eat? Shall we ask the people if they can....the people behind the know, shall we...... ask them what we can eat? Cos like, I am really hungry but I....I don't know what the hell any of this is.....I mean, can we eat this stuff? Yes?"

After ten minutes or so, Big Al bravely piped up and nodded forward, saying that he was going to go simple and ask for ham on focaccia. Or 'fo-caa-cha'. Which is how he pronounced it.

I looked at this stack of bread on the shelf behind the counter that Big Al was nodding at, that was clearly labelled 'focaccia' and I grabbed his arm.

"No! Don't say it like that!"

"Say what?"


"Why not?"

"Because you pronounce it like this..............fok-ka-chia."

"No you don't."

"Yes you do!"

"It's fo-caa-cha, not fok-ka-chia"

"Listen, it's fucking fok-ka-chia, not fucking fo-caa-cha."

"Dan, it's fo-caa-cha." 

 Big Al said this through gritted teeth by the way, smiling straight ahead.

"No, it's fok-ka-chia and if you go up there with your fo-caa-cha, that bloke over there with the big bushy beard is going laugh his tits off at you."

"Why don't you order your fok-ka-chia first then? And we'll see what happens."

Admittedly, up until then, I hadn't even thought about ordering foccacia. Or fok-ka-chia for that matter. But as Big Al was standing there with a glint in his eye and looking all smug-like, I decided that I would go for it. Like I said, there was a lot at stake. So I stepped up to the counter and peered over the glass panel and in the most authoritative tone I could muster, said:

"Hi there, can I get a fok-ka-chia with cheese please? To TAKEAWAY!"  (That last bit was uttered in a rather high pitch)

"Fok-ka-chia with cheese?" asked the man with the beard.

"Yes, fok-ka-chia with cheese........that cheese, please," I replied, pointing urgently at some non-descript round of yellow cheese, that possibly could have been gouda.

"OK," he said cooly, with not one flinch of dischord. "You want that cheese melted?" 

"Yeah, why not," I replied, emboldened with a new found confidence, thinking he must have one of those iron press type.....things.

"Comin' right up."

I turned around to Big Al and delivered a gloating smile of my own and casually leaned on the countertop, one arm cocked, to represent my cockiness; whilst Mr Beard did his business with his back turned to me.

A minute or so later, he twirled around, perched a brown paper bag on the glass and told me that my order was ready.

"There you go buddy, chocolate chip cookie with cheese, that'll be two dollars."

Being terribly British and not wanting to cause a fuss, I didn't react. I just calmly reached for my wallet, plucked out two notes, handed them over, grabbed the bag and walked straight out into the glorious sunshine.

I didn't even look at Big Al on the way out. The heat of his jubilation radiating, pulsing outwards was more than I could bear.  Once outside and a fair way down the road, after say about a mile, I stopped and leaned my back against a wall. I opened the bag and peered in. And there it was. A huge chocolate chip cookie, smothered with this congealed and rapidly browning crust of cheese. I took a small bite and have never felt so mournful in my life.

Fair play to Al though. Once he caught up with me and got over his hysterics, he did suggest that fok-ka-chia, said with an Essex accent, could, just could sound like chocolate chip cookie to the untrained Canadian ear. Later, over a pint of Rickard's Red, he even enthused that cheese covered biscuits could well be a 'thing' in Toronto and maybe it was. But I doubt it.

No, somewhere there is a dude with a beard that is greying and every now and then, he will regale upon the time he served up a chocolate chip cookie, topped with molten cheese to some gormless, pale English kid. 

And all because he didn't know how to say "Focaccia." 

"This is not the fok-ka-chia I asked for"