Friday, 22 March 2013

Truffles for Triumphs...

Rich, dark, and wickedly delicious Chocolate Truffles are not your everyday lunchbox filler; instead waiting patiently in the wings like the other social butterflies of the kitchen (the canapé, the soufflé, or anything else ending in é, in case you were wondering) for one of those occasions that calls for the special china or the fancy napkins, rings and all. Cream, chocolate, a splash of something alcoholic and an enormous measure of down-right scrumptiousness, these little balls of all things bad for your waistline but glorious for your taste buds, are quite rightly one of those decadent, and dangerously moreish treats that are only allowed to roll out of the kitchen on special occasions. And thank goodness for that, you hear me sigh, I would need a crane and strategically placed hole in the roof just to get out of the house if they were on offer much more often...

Last weekend, one of those perilous occasions where truffles are most definitely called for, or so I like to think, arose.,, I can only blame my boyfriend, (seemingly a more and more regular feature on this blog...starting to suspect I’m a feeder) who is somewhat an over-achiever; one of those annoying people that is always doing something worth celebrating, which, in my rather food driven world, obviously means something worth cooking for. This time round, forgetting the carrot cakes and pork pies of old, the leftover dark chocolate in the fridge was the star of the show.

Feeling like the Hermione Granger of the kitchen (I would say Harry, but I don’t suit glasses..) the somewhat miraculous transformation of a matt block of dark chocolate to the thick, spectacularly shiny, see-your-face-in-it stuff that appears when it is added to hot cream, is nothing short of magic. And it really is as easy as Hermione makes mending those ugly aforementioned glasses look; once you have mixed, flavoured and tasted to your heart’s content, all that is needed is to leave the bowl to its own devices in the fridge for a few hours before rolling into balls. Easy peasy.

But the truly great thing about truffles in my eyes, (yup, even better than being ridiculously quick and even more stupidly yummy) is that they are almost a complete blank canvas of chocolate; giving your imagination free reign and letting you get totally creative. Adding a bit of this nut, or (a lot) of that liqueur takes the mixture from a bog standard choc to a treat that is truly your own.

As I got stuck in, it seems that I was feeling a little bit exotic as far as flavourings go. Don’t ask me why, it certainly had nothing to do with the weather, but drawing inspiration from my favourite, pink foil wrapped chocolate bar, half of the glossy cream and chocolate mixture took on the flavours of a Turkish delight. Enriched with pieces of the neon, rose flavoured jelly, pistachio nuts and rose water, before being rolled in bright green crushed pistachio nuts, they are not only full of Eastern Promise, but promise to fly off the plate almost as quickly as they got there. They would look beautiful piled on to a glass dish at Christmas time, not at all out of place in Nigella’s winter wonderland of a kitchen. Just don’t be too fussy about arranging in a meticulous, Ferroro Rocher style pyramid, they are guaranteed not to last long...

The other half of the basic truffle mix was a slightly manlier affair; speckled with crunchy salted almond praline, spiked with red chilli and given an added kick with a glug of spiced rum. Just yummy. Both were totally delicious, but if you don’t fancy the idea of a chocolate that will make your lips tingle, add your favourite nuts, dried fruit, spices, orange zest; go mad, the possibilities really are endless. Just get stuck in and get creative, these are a treat a million times worth any of the minimal melting, stirring and imagination required.

Ps. Listen up, this is a serious point; as I learnt after a few hours on the train and tube with my bag of treats, truffles do not travel well. If you want to avoid presenting your loved one with a bag of something that looks a lot more like something you would give to your enemy, make sure you keep these cold and un-squashed. Because they are definitely not an attractive present when they arrive in one brown, squidgy mess. If you know what I mean...

The Best Chocolate Truffles.

Basic Dark Chocolate Truffle
300ml double cream
A knob of butter
300g good quality dark chocolate, broken in to small pieces
A pinch of sea salt
A splash of alcohol (brandy, rum, orange liqueur- Whatever your tipple!)
Chopped nuts, fruit, marshmallows, praline, orange zest, dried chilli flakes or whatever extra flavouring you fancy.
Chopped nuts, cocoa powder or dessicated coconut; to roll.

Heat the cream in a small saucepan until very hot but not quite boiling. When small bubbles begin to appear on the surface, add the butter and stir until melted.

Pour this hot mixture over the broken chocolate, whisking to combine, and allow the chocolate to melt nice and slowly.

Mix in a splash of your chosen alcohol, a pinch of salt (really brings out the flavour of the chocolate, honest) and any flavourings you fancy. Stir until the chocolate is melted, and the mixture is thick and smooth.

Leave to set in the fridge for at least 2 hours- You can make it a few days in advance if you are short of time.

About half an hour before you want to serve your truffles, roll spoonfuls of the mixture into small  balls; coat in chopped nuts, cocoa powder or desiccated coconut and serve!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Food Safari - The View From the Sink...

A few weekends ago, I was lucky enough to be asked to help with one of the brilliant Food Safari ‘Bread in a Day’ courses, getting my hands dirty as I delved in to the mountains of washing up, scraped the remains of the plentiful loaves out of the bowls of the all-kneaded-out participants, and measured endless jugs of water and portions of butter. Now, it is not often that the words ‘lucky’ and ‘washing up’ are seen in the same sentence, the last time probably being from the mouth of a pot washer on Roman Abramovich’s super-yacht moored in some balmy Caribbean paradise; but on this occasion, an exception must definitely be made. From my station at the sink, I learnt a wealth of bread making tips, secrets of the trade and even had a sneaky listen to some of Chef, and resident bread-making instructor, Peter Harrison’s well-guarded recipes...

Now, if you love food, and live in Suffolk, the chances are that you have heard of, and almost definitely, covet a place on one of the unique, experience-led courses at the Food Safari. Brainchild of Sweffling’s Polly Robinson, the food lovers haven is hot on the radar of foodies near and far, dishing up the perfect opportunity for those with a true love of good-grub to learn more about their favourite producers, get down and dirty with butchery, rummage in the hedgerows on one of the incredibly popular foraging days or try their hand at producing beautiful loaves of artisan bread. The exciting venture, started in 2009, is all about getting back to the real, grass-roots of food; inspiring a real connection with where the stuff we pile onto our plates comes from and how it is made; encouraging a reconnection with the unique and exciting local producers that make this possible, and that we are lucky enough to have right on our doorstep.

The Food Safari gives the intrigued day-tripper, to the full on gastro-geek the chance to go behind the counter of our most exciting food producers, delving in to the traditions and processes that make their offerings so special, whilst encouraging the intrepid food explorer to get elbow deep in the finest quality ingredients with an absolutely unique range of utterly hands-on courses and experiences. Whether you long to peek behind the doors of the smokehouses at Pinney’s in Orford, crammed with rows of vibrant, glistening sides of salmon; long to learn more about Sourdough starters at the now famous Pump Street Bakery, or want to get your hands dirty with a spot of game butchery with the Wild Meat Company; the experiences offered up by Polly and her team are totally unrivalled. Winner of the hotly contested Best Day Course/Food Experience category at the 2012 UK Cookery School Awards, the company is rapidly spreading it’s wings, growing up and getting ready to fly the nest and dive into the extensive waters of the wider British food scene; with branches popping up in London, Derbyshire and Cambridgeshire to name but a few. Now you see why I was excited to squeeze on those Marigolds.

But, back to the loaf in hand, and on with a little reminisce about a day filled to the brim with almost every kind of homemade bread possible; that passed in a cloud of flour and a blur of washing up suds and, to be honest, left me absolutely desperate for a sandwich...

The day began at 9.45am (I would say sharp, but the roads around Suffolk are notoriously not too friendly with the SatNav;) the group arriving in excited dribs and drabs, armed with bread making questions, and keen to discover where their brick-like,  tasteless loaves had been going wrong. Over steaming coffee pots and baskets of wholemeal scones, homemade Eccles cakes and local jams, the small crowd of novice bakers took the opportunity to indulge in a short chat about all things bread; grilling Peter for advice and delving into his catalogue of experience for any little titbit of trade secrets, before getting straight to the work stations, out with the scales, and on with the arm-stretches to avoid any kneading based injury (the true peril of bread, never mind what the dieticians say.)

As the sink filled, and I got to grips with the finer points of washing up plug-clogging bowls full of dough (definitely as exciting as it sounds); the class cracked on with mixing, shaping and proving enough beautiful loaves to fill a small bakery. White and brown tin loaves emerged from the oven in perfectly bronzed drones; tea breads filled the air with delicious wafts of fruit and spice, and overflowing basins of pillowy pre-made dough were rolled, flattened and pinched into every shape imaginable before being covered in poppy, sesame and sunflower seeds; making an army of rolls big enough to take on any dinner party.

As lunch neared, a tray crammed with mismatched bowls of the most beautiful pizza toppings appeared, ready to adorn the olive oil enriched foccacia dough, proved and waiting by the side of the Aga. After forming half of this great duvet of creamy white dough in to dimpled, shining foccacia, topped with sea salt, rosemary and glistening pools of olive oil; the apron-clad bakers smothered their freshly rolled bases with homemade tomato sauce, before speckling with their favourite toppings from a deli-lover’s bounty of creamy mozzarella, olives, glistening Sunblush tomatoes, spicy chorizo and Parma ham. So, as I tried not to dribble (unprofessional, even for a washer-upper,) the guests feasted upon their anchovy or goats cheese strewn pizzas; twinned with likewise drool-inducing chargrilled vegetable and chickpea, and grilled chicken, roasted squash and pesto salads. Dessert, of course followed, a gorgeously sticky orange and almond cake, served up with neon pink roasted vanilla rhubarb and tart crème fraiche, and glasses were amply filled with plenty of local apple juice, wine and Adnams beers. Just what those worn out arms needed.

So, after a quick wind-down and fill-up, it was straight back to the worktop; ready to stretch some more gluten strands. After lunch it was the turn of flat breads; charred in a hot griddle pan, puffed up under a pan lid on the Aga, or baked in a scorching hot oven to produce perfectly pocketed pittas. What a mouthful. Served with roasted cumin seed and coriander yoghurt or butterbean and garlic dips, the delightfully misshapen rounds were just further proof of the versatility of bread; perfect for a dinner party or as the ideal base for a special lunch- piled with hummus, roasted peppers and charred chorizo.

One of the best things about the course, other than the absolutely vast array of delicious food that was offered up on an almost non-stop basis; was the opportunity to grill a seasoned baker, discovering the answers to all the questions you have always wished were written on the back of your bag of strong white flour; tips that make the difference between a loaf that breaks the bread knife, and the kind that will make you turn away from the supermarket bakery aisle time after time in favour of. From the best flours to buy, the ultimate temperature for a perfect crust, to the slightly alarming, but as the class was assured, completely safe, spraying of the inside of the oven with water to achieve the optimum bake; there were more tips being thrown about in that room than in a good American restaurant.

However, my absolute favourite in the quest to avoid bread only worthy of the duck pond, was the ‘window-pane’ test. Don’t worry, this does not involve throwing your rolls at the French doors to check their texture or crust; it is simply the best way to check if you can give your arms a break and stop kneading. Pinch a small piece of dough from your kneaded ball and stretch between your fingers, looking out for a texture that holds together like a thin piece of Clingfilm (or indeed glass.) If (sorry arms) any breakage occurs or holes appear before you have formed a translucent film, it is back to the kneading board to achieve that perfect texture, where the gluten strands have been stretched enough to guarantee the perfect loaf. Phew the tension, I definitely couldn’t help leaving the sink for this part of the bread making process...

At the end of the day, as the guests left with bag upon ‘Food Safari’ stamped bag of fresh, still warm bread, I leant back against the sink and realised that I have never enjoyed washing up so much. The day was a whirlwind of yeast, flour and balls of dough, splattered with plenty of periods reserved for eating gorgeous local food, asking questions and racking Peter and Polly’s bread filled brains for tricks of the trade. The bowl of every participant was overflowing with an obvious love of food, and the importance of good, local ingredients was highlighted by the team in a way that only those with a true love and respect for producers and products can make possible. This was definitely not your average day of bread-making; the quality of the ingredients mouth-watering, the passion of the teachers inspiring, and, I like to think most importantly, every bowl scrubbed to complete, sparkling perfection...