Sunday, 27 May 2012

Visible pink unicorn cake

Sometimes things in the kitchen just don't turn out the way you expect. I've had one of those weekends... Absolutely everything I tried to make has turned out more or less like a disaster. However, in some cases you can just cover it all up prettily, and people will eat it anyways. This is a story of exactly such a cake.

For this cake, I had this brilliant idea of trying to make fudge cake icing. I originally got the idea from this fudge muffin recipe (it's in Finnish). While in the UK I have totally fallen in love with fudge. The best place for fudge, in my opinion, is Fudge Kitchen, which is a chain of fudge stores selling traditional, hand-made fudge. The fudge is different from most fudge I ever had, and turns out it's made with sugar and cream instead of butter which is more commonly used. The fudge is very creamy and soft and absolutely delicious, although it's really sweet, so non-carboholics sometimes aren't as excited as I am. Anyways, the point was that I was going to make a really cool and delicious cake icing by just rolling out the fudge and topping my cake with it. Well, the Fudge Kitchen fudge turned out to be way too soft and gooey to be rolled out, even when I added copious amounts of icing sugar. This is what you get for trying a new thing without making a prototype... Good thing I had bought some back-up sugar paste. Just in case. 

However, turns out the icing on the cake was just... well the icing on the cake. There were other problems as well. The plan was to make a cake with three layers (so two layers of filling). The filling was supposed to be lemon curd in one layer and rhubarb preserve in the other, with a whipped cream - mascarpone - white chocolate mix in both layers. I decided to make the sponge using a somewhat different recipe from my usual one, as this was supposed to result in a more fluffy cake and to be certain to succeed every time. In this recipe, you first make a soft whipped white cream from sugar and eggs, then you add boiling water and keep on whipping, and this is supposed to make the batter expand in volume. Then you add the flour, and bake. I was starting to get slightly worried when I added the water and the volume of the batter stayed pretty much the same. Then, in the oven, the cake didn't rise very much. So there was no way I would be able to cut the cake into three parts, and had to settle for one layer of filling. Also, I had planned to add some grated lemon zest to the cake for added flavour, but when the cake was in the oven, I realised I had totally forgotten about the zest. 

I will still give the sponge cake recipe another try at some other time, as it had so many positive comments. I'm sure something just went wrong when I prepared my cake. Maybe the air was too humid, the moon was in the wrong phase, or I was wearing the wrong coloured socks (ok, to be honest, I wasn't wearing any socks at all, as all clothing have been kept to the bare minimum which is required for decency during the heat wave we have been experiencing). Check out the original recipe as it has very good pictures describing the steps during preparation.

For the sponge cake (recipes for 24(26)28 cm cake tins):

3(3.75)4.5 dl wheat flour (corresponds to approximately 195(244)293 grams)
1-2(2)2-3 tsp baking powder
4(5)6 eggs at room temperature
2(2.5)3 dl sugar (corresponds to approximately 170(213)255 grams)
100(125)150 ml boiling water

For the filling:
200g lemon curd
200g mascarpone
250ml double cream
200g white chocolate

250 ml milk
2 tbsp Whittard lemon meringue hot chocolate
1tsp lemon extract

The howto:
For the cake, line a baking tin with butter and breadcrumbs and pre-heat oven to 200 degrees C. Boil water. Mix flour and baking powder. In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugar until white and fluffy. Add the boiling water about a tablespoon at a time, while whipping. The volume of the batter will expand during this phase, so make sure you have a big enough bowl. Fold in the flour and baking powder mix, pour into the prepared tin, and bake in 200 degrees for 30 minutes. If the cake turns too dark, cover with tin foil. After baking, let the cake cool on a wire rack.

For the filling, start by melting the white chocolate. Whip cream until soft and fluffy, and mix with mascarpone and melted chocolate.

Cut your cake into two or three layers. Mix milk, hot chocolate and lemon extract, and using a spoon or brush, moisten the cake, particularly around the edges. Add lemon curd onto each layer, and then the cream - mascarpone - white chocolate mix, but leave about 1/3 of the mix. Use the remaining mix to cover the cake. This is ideally done already a day in advance, so you can leave your cake to moisten in the fridge over night. 

The next day, roll out the icing and cover the cake. 

One serving contains so many calories that if you are counting, you should probably skip the cake altogether...

The verdict:
Like I said before, this cake went from disaster to disaster. However, my guests very graciously ate it, and some even went back for seconds. I have to say, I'm a bit worried about myself, as I usually don't find a cake worth the effort unless it has chocolate in it, but I really liked this one. Well, to be fair, it did have white chocolate. I love the combination of cream, mascarpone and white choc, the choc gives the mix a nice structure and it makes the mix a bit more solid. The lemon curd felt nice and refreshing, but I was really regretting that I forgot the lemon zest from the sponge cake, as I'm sure it would have added some nice freshness to the cake. But sum total is, as long as you put some flowers on your cake, people will be impressed and eat it without complaining. I should have learned my lesson never to try a new idea without making a trial run, but to be honest, I will be baking some untested cakes for my friend's party next weekend, so I predict next Sunday there will be a blog post describing many things that can go wrong with cheesecake. In between, I'll try to summarise my experiences with macarons. I don't want to give away too much, but expect some major troubleshooting...

Friday, 25 May 2012


This will just be a Friday quickie, no profound thoughts, just a chocorgasm. I had to share this idea as I'm so excited about it. Once in a while you just run into something which is pure genius. I happened upon this recipe today at work (I just had a quick peak during a really boring meeting, I usually don't browse baking blogs at work, I promise!! but if I hear the word coalescence one more time today I will hurt myself or someone else very badly). For the rest of the day, all I could think about was to get home and try this out. I mean, this is just the most amazing thing. It's a chocolate cake, made in the microwave in two minutes, all from ingredients you have at home. Well, at least almost, as I don't usually keep chocolate at home for safety reasons. Apart from that, I still think whoever came up with this idea should get the culinary equivalent of the Nobel prize.  

I picked up this recipe from a blog called Completely Delicious, and just did a few very minor tweaks. I absolutely love that blog, the recipes on there are amazing, and the pictures are very beautiful. I warmly suggest you go and have a browse! The pictures on there are much better than mine, I should have made the cake in a white mug, not one which was dark inside, as it doesn't do any justice to the beautiful cake. 

And finally I'm done with my rant. I won't keep you from the actual recipe any longer. Oh and the original recipe says serves 1 or 2. Two, my ash... This is the perfect decadent treat for a single woman slouching on her sofa on a Friday night!

Two minute microwave chocolate cake:
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp milk (original recipe says whole, but I used semi skimmed)
1 large egg
1/4 tsp vanilla extract (I might have splashed in a bit more...)
1 tsp chocolate, orange and cinnamon balsamic
3 tbsp (20 grams) all-purpose flour
4 tbsp (45 grams) sugar
2 tbsp (10 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
Pinch salt
3 tbsp (30 grams) semi-sweet chocolate chips (I might have accidentally poured in a bit more... whoopsie)

One serving contais about as many calories as are needed to feed a family of six for a week... 

The howto:
In a mug, melt the butter in the microwave. Then add milk, egg, vanilla extract and balsamic and mix. Add flour, sugar, cocoa, and salt and mix until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips. Bake in the microwave on high for two minutes. Serve immediately. I happened to have clotted cream (a thing of pure beauty I had never encountered before moving to the UK), so I served the cake with a big dollop of clotted cream. Ice cream would work too. Do be careful when eating it, as it's really hot, particularly the melted choccy goo at the bottom!

Step 1: using a spoon, mix all ingredients in a mug
Step 2: pop in the microwave for 2 minutes
The verdict:
No matter how genius I thought this was when I read the recipe, when I had mixed everything together in the mug and put it all in the microwave, I thought this would not work, it would all come out a hot liquid, possibly somewhat burned, mess. Well, it didn't. It came out a chocolate cake. With the chocolate chips melted into a goo at the bottom, as promised in the original recipe. 
It's not the best chocolate cake I have had in my life, but it is damn good. And given that it takes about a minute to make and two to bake, there is no other cake that gives such a good taste for time ratio. It also is quite a big serving, so unless you are a seasoned chocoholic like me, you might want to share it with someone. I'm giddy like a kid over this genius idea. I would jump up and down from excitement if I wasn't absolutely knocked out after eating the whole thing in one go. I read somewhere that snakes will spend a week on digesting a meal. Let's just say I know exactly how they feel!
So you might wonder about the chocolate, orange and cinnamon balsamic in there. If you don't happen to have any laying around (although, why wouldn't you?), you can just leave it out, it's not a part of the original recipe. I was actually going to add some orange flavouring as I think the combo of chocolate and orange is heavenly. But I couldn't find my orange flavouring, or maybe I don't have any. And despite planning to buy some orange liqueur for ages, I haven't gotten around to that either. But last weekend when I was in York, I found this adorable little store called The Hairy Fig, which has a wide selection of flavoured oils, balsamico and vinegars. And of course I couldn't resist the choco-orange balsamic, although I'm not quite sure how to use it. I think it worked very well here, although the dark chocolate goo at the bottom was the most overpowering flavour of the cake.
This will definitely have to go on the "absolutely forbidden" list, it's too good, too easy, too quick, and above everything else, has about as many calories as I usually eat in a day... But I just can't get over how genius it is! (I apologize for the profuse use of the word genius in this post, I blame it on the sugar coma and the fact that this is a *chocolate cake* which takes *two minutes* to make!)

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Karelian pasties

My Finn food nostalgia goes on, but this time the rant phase is not quite as long, I promise. This is another food memory that goes all the way back to my childhood. Karelian pasties are savoury, rye crusted small pasties or pies filled with rice. They were traditionally made in Eastern Finland, but are now eaten all over the country. Most people buy them ready made from the store, as they are a bit laborious to make. 

My grandma (Mummo, Finnish for grandma) used to make these pies for us when we were kids. She has a summer house in Central Finland (the Finnish "lake district") and whenever we would go there, after a four to five hour drive, we would arrive to a table which was full with all sorts of goodies she had prepared for us. The Karelian pasties were definitely among our favourites, and no matter how many she made, we always ran out of them after a few days. I think there were times when she had made a batch of 100 pasties, and they did last us a while, but probably not all through the holidays. Mummo used to make the pies big as the palm of your hand, and they were always served with egg-butter in the traditional way. 

In theory making the pasties is really easy. You make a porridge of rice or barley (potato mash is the third official filling of the pasties, although other more unofficial fillings like carrot also exist), and a dough of rye and wheat flour, fill the pie and make the creasing around the edges. So far so good. Well, the first problem is making the dough just right. The internet is full of recipes for it. Basically, it's just rye flour, wheat flour and water. Mummo used to make it just out of rye flour. When I asked her how much flour and how much water, she would just say "a good amount". She could feel when the dough had the right texture, I can't. To make the pasties perfect, the dough has to be rolled as thin as possible, but if the dough is too stiff, it will tear, and if it's too soft it will just stick everywhere. One tip is, the more wheat flour you have in the dough the easier it gets to work with. But basically it's cheating, it should be doable using just rye flour. Also, my grandma could just roll out the dough to perfectly sized and shaped crusts, I cheat by rolling it out and then using a large cup or small plate to make round shapes. Also, because the crusts are so thin, they tend to dry if you pre-make many before filling, so the best approach to bake the pasties is to roll out one or a few crusts, fill them and crease them, and then repeat over and over again. It's a lot of work, but if you get it right, they are really delicious. Funny thing is that the pasties really are very variable in shape and size, depending on the maker. Mine tend to be small and very narrow, others make them much wider, some even make them in the shape of a full circle, although for me the boat shape will always be the only acceptable one.

Karelian pasties (small batch, about 10 small ones):
For the filling:
100g pearl barley
80ml water
350ml milk
a pinch of salt
For the dough:
100g rye flour
25g white flour
80ml water

The howto:
Bring the water to a boil, add the barley and let cook for a few minutes until the water has been absorbed. Add the milk and salt, and let boil for about 40 minutes until the milk has been absorbed and you have a thickish porridge. While the porridge is boiling, make the dough by mixing all ingredients together. Work the dough on a lightly floured surface to create a smooth and easily workable dough, add water of flour as needed. The amount of water depends on how fine your flour is. If you increase the amount of white flour and decrease the rye flour, the dough gets easier to roll and shape, whereas more rye flour will give a more crunchy crust if you manage to get the consistency good enough so that you can roll really thin crusts. I usually just hope for the best, expect the worst, and the result is something in between.

When the porridge has boiled and cooled a bit, make round crusts either by rolling out the dough directly to a round(ish) shape, or by using a big mug or small bowl as a cutter. Add filling, but not all the way out to the edges, and use your fingers to make small creases in the crust like shown in the pictures below.

You can find a clear video tutorial on how to shape the pasties here (accompanied by beautiful and delicate music...). 

Bake in a hot oven (about 230-250 degrees C) for 10-15 minutes, until golden brown. When the pasties come out of the oven, brush a mixture of melted butter and milk onto the pies. Serve with egg butter (finely chopped hard boiled egg mixed with butter and a pinch of salt).

The verdict:
This was definitely not my best batch of pasties, but I have been craving them for so long that even these were devoured in minutes. The dough for the crust was a bit too hard, so I wasn't able to roll the crusts thin enough, and they turned a bit too hard when baked. Also, despite my recent love affair with pearl barley, I think I prefer the rice filling for the pasties. If you are using rice instead of barley, you should use pudding rice or risotto rice to get the right, gooey type of filling. I also think one of the secrets is not to use skimmed milk, but rather the full fat stuff. Also, you shouldn't make the porridge too thick, it makes shaping the pies a bit harder. All in all, these are a lot of work, but definitely some of my all time favourite things to eat, especially straight out of the oven, hot enough so that the egg butter melts all over them. 

School food nostalgia

After making my less traditional version of spinach pancakes, I have been thinking a lot about traditional Finnish food, and particularly food memories from my childhood. I don't know if I'm suffering from an iron deficiency right now, but the two foods that have particularly occupied my thoughts have been liver casserole and blood pancakes. Weird, I know. Oh, and I should apologise in advance, this will be a very long rant going off on several topics. As usual, feel free to skip straight to the recipe at the end.

I guess the first thing I should explain for the non-Finnish reader (not sure if there are any... oh well, I'll go ahead anyways) is about Finnish school food. In Finland, all the way from elementary to high school, you are served a free warm lunch every day. In fact, education in general is free in Finland, which I think is one of the great things we should take pride in, but I won't go further into my thoughts on education policies. I'll just stick to talking about food. So, like I said, free food for everyone. Of course the budget of the school kitchens are not very big, and the quality of school food today probably is not what it used to be when I was a kid. Still, the idea is to serve (relatively) healthy and varied basic food, serving a variety of fish, meat or chicken based food. Interestingly, there was an uproar of protest when the schools in the capital region started to serve only vegetarian food one day a week. Previously there had always been an vegetarian option in addition to fish or meat, but it was seen as totally incomprehensible that growing children were forced to eat vegetarian food once a week. I am rolling my eyes as I write this, I can't understand why at least one day of fully veggie food wouldn't be acceptable to serve in schools, but this was seen as forcing food ideologies on people. Personally, I don't see why veggie food couldn't be a part of a normal diet for everyone, especially since many veggie foods can still be incredibly nutritious but inexpensive at the same time, not to even mention veggie food being the more environmentally friendly option. I think learning to eat and appreciate all different types of food would be important, and if children learn this already when they grow up, where is the harm? Of course families are then free to serve them whatever they want at dinner, if they find the lack of animal protein to be extremely worrying, they can compensate for this at dinner that day. 

I grew up in a really small village about an hour's drive from the capital, and went to a very idyllic small elementary school for the first six years of my education. The school had four teachers and a hundred or so pupils. We used to have two cooks in our own little school kitchen who prepared traditional home-cooked Finnish food, like fish and potatoes, sausage and mash, macaroni and minced meat casserole, meat stews and suchlike. We had green salads or grated root veg every day to go with the food. The principle was that you had to have at least a small taste of everything (a principle I still try to live by). I can remember the two things I really hated was pickled herring with a white sauce with boiled eggs and breaded and fried herring. My favourites, at least the ones I can remember, were oven baked macaroni and minced meat casserole, sausage in tomato sauce, pasta bolognese and blood pancakes. Particularly, I remember that the pancakes were served from the kitchen in aluminum foil tins with stacks of pancakes, maybe six or so to a stack. As the pancakes were heated in the oven, the top pancake got a bit burned and dried out, and it was the most delicious thing to eat.

Inspired by these childhood memories, I realised I have never cooked any offal in my entire life. So I decided I really have to try it out. I can remember my mum making liver casserole when I was a kid, and in Finland it's actually so popular that you can buy microwave meals of it in all grocery stores. To explain the whole thing, I think I have to start by explaining the concept of "laatikko". In Finnish cooking, we have loads of foods named laatikko. The word laatikko in general is best translated to box or container, and when it comes to food, the closest translation is casserole. It refers basically to a food that has been cooked slowly in the oven for a long time. The most common "laatikko" foods are makaroonilaatikko (macaroni casserole), maksalaatikko (liver casserole), porkkanalaatikko (carrot casserole), lanttulaatikko (swede casserole), perunalaatikko (potato casserole), kaalilaatikko (cabbage casserole) and I could go on forever. In my opinion, it's an excellent way of cooking. It brings out more flavour from the foods, and you can use cheaper cuts of meat (most often minced meat is used, as in makaroonilaatikko, it's a mix of macaroni and minced meat). Casseroles with root veggies are often a mix of grated or pureed root veg mixed with rice and cooked slowly to enhance the natural sweetness, often with a dash of syrup and butter added for taste. So the laatikko-foods have a very central part in Finnish cooking, best exemplified by the three classics, carrot- swede and potato casserole which are pretty much obligatory on the Christmas dinner table in Finland. I wouldn't say it's the most gourmet experience Finnish cooking can produce, but it's basic, good, homecooked food at it's best. And you can leave the stuff in the oven for hours on low heat, the flavours just intesify, and you can use your time for something else, like writing a food blog...

Then onto the subject of offal. In general, I'm not a big fan. However, recently I have taken a liking to liver. I had a great chicken liver salad at Carluccio's a few months ago, and absolutely exquisite chicken liver ravioli in sherry sauce at Jamie's Italian, sadly it's no longer on the menu. I was debating between making blood pancakes or liver casserole as my first attempt of traditional Finnish offal. I have to admit I settled for the liver, as I'm slightly queasy at the thought of cooking with blood. However, I like the thought that if an animal is to die in order to feed humans (and in theory, we know this wouldn't be strictly necessary to keep us alive), at least we should use every part of the animal that is edible. I just watched an episode of Two greedy italians where Antonio and Gennaro participate in slaughtering a pig in a small village in Italy. When the animal is actually slaughtered by the men in the village, and it's not done anonymously at some slaughter house far away where you don't have to see the thing actually happening, I think you have a very different respect for the food you get. They really used and preserved every part of the animal, not just the meat (again, meat sounds so much more appetising than muscle now doesn't it...). Bones can be used to make stock, most of the internal organs can be cooked in pies or stews and the blood can be made into a lot of things, like puddings or sausages. Interestingly they used the blood for a dessert called sanguinaccio, cooking it with flour, sugar, milk and cocoa powder. I've never seen anything like that done from blood. I'm not quite prepared to try that out yet, but maybe if I get a bit braver I'll try the blood pancakes. For now, I'll stick to the liver casserole though. Funnily enough, liver casserole was voted by Finnish school children to be their least favourite food in 2011 in a survey of 299 children. The top food was pizza, which was definitely not served at lunch in school when I was a kid. Goes to show how old I am. 

For my casserole, I looked for inspiration from several different recipes, at least these three: Kotikokki, Pirkka and this lovely looking blog called Grandma's recipes. Traditionally, rice is used in this dish, but as I'm going through a pearl barley phase, I decided to replace the rice with barley. I ended up with my own amalgamation of the recipes above: 

Liver casserole (maksalaatikko, 4-6 servings):

200g pearl barley (or rice)
160 ml water
600ml milk
a pinch of salt

1 onion
1 tbsp rapeseed oil

50ml syrup (I used agave syrup)
150g (about 1 cup or 2.5 dl) raisins (or less or none if you are not a fan)
1 egg
white pepper
500g beef liver, finely chopped or minced

The howto:
Bring the water to a boil, add barley, and let cook until water is absorbed (a few minutes). Then add milk 100-200 ml at a time, let cook until absorbed and add more milk. When all milk is absorbed, you should have a thick porridge with soft but still a little bit chewy barley. 
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. Finely chop the onion and fry in the oil.
Mix the onion and barley, add the rest of the ingredients and stir. Put into a oven proof casserole, and bake in the oven for at least an hour (I baked it for about 90 minutes, first without cover, and after 30 minutes I covered with foil to keep it from going too dark). Serve piping hot with a knob of butter. Traditionally, this dish would be served with lingonberry jam, but unfortunately that is a treat I don't have access to. Hopefully next time I go down to London I will have time to get some from the Scandinavian shop, and enjoy the privilege of paying triple compared to what I would back home. 

Before baking

One serving (1/6 of recipe) contains 450 kcal, 18g fat, 67g carbs and 27g protein.

The verdict:
This is a really difficult verdict to make, as I am so strongly influenced by how I think this dish should taste, based on the store bought one. I know many people think the store bought one (and liver casserole in general) is food which is not suitable for people, but should only be served dogs and cats, but I actually have a soft spot for it. It wasn't something I ate often, but every once in a while I would get a pack as a guilty pleasure.

When my casserole was cooking, the smell spreading into my apartment was exactly right, just the way I remembered it from when my mum was making the dish, or how it smells when you heat the store bought one in the oven (it gets a nicer taste compared ). So that was encouraging. And taking it out of the oven, the look was also right. Tasting it, I was very excited to say, to some extent it was the same. Yet different. In good and bad. However, there are many substitutions I have made to the recipe, so it was bound to be different. One of the most notable differences is that mine isn't nearly as sweet, and I think next time I might add 10 or 20 more ml syrup. And maybe still a bit more raisins, although I have to say my version already contains more raisins that the store bought one. But if you have been reading my previous posts, you know I have a thing for raisins (funnily enough, I needed 150 g raisins for this dish, I bought a 500g pack as that was the smallest one they had at Tesco, and I don't have any raisins left. I think there is  a raisin specific black hole in my food cupboard. Oh wait, why has my butt suddenly expanded to ginormous proportions? No idea...). The other big difference is the liver, as I didn't mince mine, but just chopped it up. I think I actually like my way better, I like the chewy little bits of liver. After already starting the cooking process, I looked online for the ingredients of the store bought one, and it contains a mix of pork, beef and chicken liver. Next time I might try the same mix. On the issue of barley versus rice I'm undecided. I am going through a barley phase right now, I like the texture of the grain better than rice. As the overpowering flavours in this dish are the raisins, syrup and liver, I don't think it matters very much if you use barley or rice, it is only there to add more substance to eat instead of anything else I guess. One more difference is that if I was cooking this back home, I would use a dark syrup, which would be something halfway between golden syrup and treacle and which I haven't seen in grocery stores here. I substituted with agave syrup, which again is very different, but the main thing is that this dish needs a bit of sweetness to work, and I think the more complex flavours of dark syrup are more suitable, but you have to stick to the ingredients you have access to. So on the issue of store bought versus home-made, I think I will settle for a tie, the store bought is sweeter and a bit more moist, this one is drier, but the taste and texture of liver comes through much better. 

Also, this turns out to be a really cheap dish to make. Ignoring the cost of the oil and spices, the rest of the ingredients cost me: liver £0.75, barley £0.36, milk £0.65, raisins £0.46, egg £0.31, onion £0.15, agave syrup £0.5. For me, this amount makes 6 servings, so the price per serving is £0.53. Yes, seriously!! Talk about cheap food. A quick google search suggested that the current price for Saarioinen's liver casserole €2.5, I would say that is 3 servings of equal size making it more expensive at €0.83 (£0.76). And shipping it to the UK in fridge temperature also might add a bit to the cost.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Honey mustard chicken stew with parsnips

After the lovely meat stew my sister made when I was visiting her a few weeks ago, I have had a horrible urge to cook everything really slowly in stew form because it brings out wonderful flavours from the most everyday ingredients. My friend made a honey mustard chicken stew with parsnips, and I watched her eat it at lunch break for a few days and just had to try it myself. But I didn't get around to writing it into a post back when I made it. Today, my mum told me she will get very fresh chicken from a local farm, so I thought now I have to get this down on paper. So to speak... Mum, this is for you:

Honey mustard chicken stew

1 tbsp olive oil 
8 bone-in chicken thighs , skin removed
2 onions , finely chopped
350g parsnips , cut into sticks
300ml vegetable stock
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
2 tbsp clear honey
few thyme sprigs
flat-leaf parsley , to serve (optional)

The howto:
Brown the chicken in 1/2 tbsp oil until golden, then set aside. Do this is several batches if needed.  Heat the remaining oil, then cook the onions for 5 mins until softened. Add the chicken back in the casserole with the onions and add the parsnips. Mix the stock with the mustard and honey, then pour in. Scatter over the thyme, then bring to a simmer. Cover and cook for at least 30 minutes, or if you have the time, up to 90 minutes. Season. 

The verdict:
There is no way this recipe could have disappointed me, as I love sweet flavours in food, and the combination of honey and mustard is a classic. I also love love love parsnips, and the slow cooking really brings out all the sweetness in them. I think using chicken thighs with the bone still in them brings lots more flavour than just using fillets, but I haven't tried this using fillets, so I can't be sure if it's just my imagination. I cooked the stew for 90 minutes, and the meat just fell of the bones. I actually cooked my chicken with the skin on, but the stew got a bit fatty, so I'm going to take the skin off next time. Nonetheless, it was really delicious and I will certainly be making it again some time. As soon as I get to the end of my to-cook list...

Monday, 14 May 2012

Pearl barley risotto

My sister sent me this recipe and I was going to put it somewhere on my mile long to-cook list. For some reason, the more I thought about it, the higher on the list it rose. I haven't cooked much with barley, so I was eager to give it a try. I did a few tweaks to the original recipe, the major one being the addition of dried mushrooms. My mum sent me dried funnel chanterelles she picked and dried herself, so I wanted to find some recipes I could use them in. Risotto and mushrooms go together like me and chocolate, so I thought I would give it a try. Funnel chanterelle is a mushroom which commonly grows in Finnish forests. I have no idea whether you can get it in the UK, but I'm sure any dried mushroom will give the risotto a very nice, earthy flavour. I also thought that the rather strong taste of dried mushrooms would go better with beef stock than chicken stock. The downside to this is that the colour gets a bit soggy and dark, whereas chicken stock would result in a beautiful and white dish. But taste-wise, I think it was a good substitution. This dish certainly is nowhere close to being low carb, but oh well. I'll be extra low carb tomorrow. Maybe...

Mushroom and pearl barley risotto (serves 3):
1 onion
2 garlic cloves
1/2 tbsp rapeseed oil
200g (1 cup, 2.5dl) pearl barley
20g dried funnel chanterelle or other dried mushrooms
1.5 l beef stock 
40g (60ml) grated parmesan
a few tbsp finely chopped parsley and mint

The howto:
Soak the dried mushrooms in water for about half an hour (water volume should be around 2-3 times the volume of the mushrooms). Fry the onion and garlic in the oil for a few minutes on medium heat until translucent but not brown. Add the barley and fry for another few minutes. Add mushrooms and the water they have been soaking in. Then start adding the stock, about 100ml at a time and let it absorb into the barley before adding more. You can keep the stock at a low simmer in another saucepan, or as I do because I'm lazy, just boil the water in a kettle, then add the stock cubes. Although technically it's not boiling, it keeps quite hot for a long time. I don't think this has too much of an effect on the result, but I'm sure the masters of classic cooking would find this a sin. When you are nearing the end of the stock, keep testing the barley, you want it to still have a bit of chew in it and not go completely limp. When satisfied with the consistency of the barley, add parmesan and herbs and serve immediately with some black pepper on top.

One serving contains 350 kcal (19g fat, 37g carbs, 10g protein).

The verdict:
I really like the texture and the taste of the barley. It's a good substitute for rice in many recipes, and I already have a few ideas of things I want to try, so keep an eye out for more barley recipes soonish. The risotto wasn't nearly as creamy as it would be if made from rice, but for me, the texture of the barley more than makes up for this shortcoming. And of course the parmesan adds a bit of creaminess. Also, I was really surprised how well the mint went with the beef stock and mushrooms, it really added a different flavour compared to risottos made from chicken stock. Although the taste was much stronger, I think it complimented the mushrooms and barley well, and was not stuffy or heavy at all.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Syrniki - russian quark pancakes

I guess I should begin by apologising for another pancake post right after the last one. But then again, who wouldn't love pancakes? To celebrate the weekend, and to make up for calories lost to rather heavy cardio lately (because the tub of Ben&Jerry's I had yesterday didn't quite do it...), I wanted to make a mean weekend brunch. When it comes to cooking, and particularly weekend brunches, I definitely don't have a problem trying to think up things to cook. Quite the opposite, my problem is that there is only two possibilities for weekend brunch each week, which leaves me with an ever growing list of recipes I want to try out, or old favourites I want to revisit and maybe pimp a bit. 

Talking about long lists, I have to go off on a tangent here for just a second. If you haven't used Evernote, I want to take a few sentences to introduce you to the software that is currently the only thread of sanity keeping my crazy life together. Basically, it's a software that allows you to organize notes into notebooks, tag them with key words and attach documents and figures. It's fully searchable, you can use it online but there are also apps for the iPhone and iPad (and apparently for Android as well, Google tells me). And the best thing, it's free! Well, it's free to a certain amount of data a month, but for my use it's good enough. The only downside with free Evernote is that you need to have access to the internet to see your notes. I always keep forgetting this. For me that only makes it useful in the UK, as I tend to turn off roaming when I go abroad (oh, the joys of a scientist's salary, you can't even afford to go online... sigh). There are also other apps in the Evernote family such as the very imaginatively named Web Clipper which allows you to save webpages, draw (Skitch) or study more efficiently (Evernote Peek). There even seems to be an Evernote food app, which I only discovered now as I was browsing the Evernote webpage while writing this post. I'm not sure what the Evernote food app would have that would make it better than Evernote proper but I'll have a look at that later. What I love about Evernote is that I can make my notes wherever I am, online on my work computer or using the app on my phone. I have standard notes like grocery list, ideas for presents etc which I can update as soon as I remember that I need to buy something, or find a good idea for a present. Then I just pull out the appropriate note when I'm at the grocery store, or it's time for someone's birthday. I also keep a list of recipes I want to try. As soon as I come across a good recipe in a food blog or a magazine I clip it or take a picture of it and save it. Then I have a library of easily browsable and searchable favourite recipes when I plan next week's menu, with all the ingredients already listed so I can just copy and paste to my grocery list.

But this wasn't supposed to be about making notes, it was about that oh so lovely lazy weekend brunch. This time I chose to cook syrniki, russian quark pancakes out of two reasons. I have been craving them ever since I saw the recipe posted on one of my favourite food blogs, Kauhaa ja Rakkautta a few weeks ago, and because I had a tub of quark in my fridge which was about to go off. So this recipe is stolen from that blog, and the blogger actually has adapted it from the oh so glamorous Pirkka magazine. For the non-Finns (if anyone besides my mum and sis actually read this...), Pirkka is the monthly magazine of the K-food chain, one of the two largest grocery store chains in Finland. You get the magazine if you sign up for the K-food chain loyalty card. It's one of those silly magazines that mostly contain adverts for new products disguised as articles, but I always loved browsing it when it arrived. Even now, when I go back home to my mum's place, I love to read it. The foodaholic in me loves to read about new food products. Also, the recipes in the magazine are often very useful, the type of quick and easy everyday food recipes you need to spice up your food life, instead of always cooking those same old dishes. And again, I was off on a tangent, I seem to have a problem staying focused today.

Anyways, back to quark pancakes. Finnish cuisine is strongly influenced by our geographical neighbours, and from the Russian kitchen we have the influence of using a lot of dairy, particularly soured dairy. The selection of dairy products in Finnish supermarkets is (in my very unbiased opinion) superior to anywhere else in the world. There are so many different types of flavoured and unflavoured creams, soured creams (different types) and quarks. I don't understand why the Brits, who seem to love their cream, haven't discovered the joys of flavoured creams. Back home we have savoury ones, like cheese, pepper or my personal favourite goat's cheese and tomato as well as sweet ones. Just imagine topping your cupcakes with caramel or strawberry flavoured cream. There is also a huge selection of flavoured quarks, such as berry, white choc and lemon, lime and many others. And on top of all this, you get many of the varieties lactose free. The positive side of me being thousands of kilometers away from all those yummy dairy temptations is that it has been easy to reduce the amount of dairy in my diet, and I have to admit it has had some very positive effects on my health (this despite that I have the genetics to prove that I'm lactose tolerant). Anyways, the point of this rant was that growing up eating Finnish food, I am very used to having a lot of different dairy choices available. So, although I'm happy that there is (one brand) of quark available in my supermarket, at the same time it's very depressing seeing that one lonely quark sitting there among all the gazillions of cheddars. And it's a depressing, fat free variety. I would prefer to have one with a bit of fat in it, but even fat free quark is better than no quark. Ok, rant over, I guess everyone is now aware of my feelings about Finnish dairy.

So how about those syrniki, what on earth are they? The one and only official source for  information, Wikipedia, tells us "In RussianBelarusianLithuanianPolish, and Ukrainian cuisinessyrniki (Russian: сы́рник[и]; Ukrainianсирники;Belarusianсырнікі) are fried quark pancakes, garnished with sour creamjamhoney, or apple sauce." My mum used to make these quite often at some point, I think actually that might have somehow magically coincided with the time the recipe was published in the Pirkka magazine... This is one of those foods that I really liked, but didn't get around to ever making myself. You know how you just forget about some foods if you don't actively make them. Then, one fine day you stumble upon the recipe and just remember such a food actually exists, and start craving it like crazy. Hopefully this has inspired you to try syrniki, you should be able to find quark at least in bigger supermarkets. And syrniki can almost be thought of as health food (cough, cough...). Well, at least compared to normal pancakes is that they have more protein thanks to the quark, and less carbs as there is less flour than in normal pancakes. Talk about rationalising...

Syrniki (makes about 16 small pancakes):
250g quark
3 eggs
65g white flour
30g sugar (this makes rather sweet pancakes, decrease or leave out if you are not a fan of sweet things)
10g vanilla sugar (again, optional, or replace with a splash of vanilla extract, or some vanilla pod seeds if you happen to have enough money to have vanilla pods hanging around unused)
14g melted butter

The batter is pretty  stiff, so the pancakes will keep their shape while cooking.
The howto:
Mix all ingredients, and let the batter stand for at least 15 minutes. This is not absolutely necessary if you just can't wait for your pancakes, but it does improve the texture of the batter and makes it a bit easier to cook. A pancake pan is optimal for cooking, but the batter is rather thick, so you can make small pancakes on a large pan as they will keep their shape rather well. I use about a topped tablespoon of batter per pancake. The batter doesn't contain much flour, so it takes a bit of patience to cook. Just make sure to stick to medium heat, and make sure the pancakes are properly cooked (turning a bit dark on the underside, with small bubbles forming on top) before you flip them over. That way they will not break during the flipping. Serve with berries, jam, fruit and/or maple syrup. Maybe even Nutella, ice cream or whipped cream if you are feeling very decadent.

The pancakes are ready to be flipped when they are golden
brown on the underside, and bubbles form on top.

One serving (1/3 of the recipe, or about 5 pancakes) contains 326 kcal (13g fat, 28g carbs, 19g protein). This is using low fat quark, and allowing for 1 additional tbsp butter for cooking the pancakes.

The verdict:
I cannot imagine a pancake I wouldn't like, and these are absolutely yummy. I just wish I could eat the whole batch in one go! The consistency is very different from traditional pancakes, they are much softer and more spongy. I think they are actually best eaten after they have cooled a little, that brings out the flavour of the quark much better. If you happened to like quark after trying these little dreamy things, check out my previous post about a quick and easy quark berry dessert.

Spinach and feta rice-crepsies

Spinach pancakes (sorry, recipe in Finnish) are a traditional Finnish dish, hated by many school-children but also loved by many. The pancakes are cooked small (about 6-7 cm in diameter), often served in a stack on the plate, and always, always, always served with lingonberries. You can even get them ready made from the grocery store, but the flavour has nothing on the home-made ones.

I have always liked these pancakes, but back home I always made them from frozen spinach. During the last half year or so, I have come to love fresh spinach. In fact, it is one of the few things (together with organic, full fat yoghurt, eggs and tomatoes) which I buy every single time on my weekly trip to the grocery store. I like to buy organic spinach, and I always feel like my world is tilted slightly off it's axis if I can only get the regular stuff. Last week I worked my way through two 200g bags of spinach, I eat it almost at every meal. In smoothies or effins in the morning, in my salads for lunch, and often I serve my dinner on a bed of spinach if I can't find a way to incorporate it into the dinner dish itself. Spinach is healthy, although I'm not sure I believe all health claims, at least those without a reference (anything from burning fat to curing cancer...) According to Wikipedia (yes, I'm too lazy to actually look up proper references) "It is a rich source of vitamin A (and especially high in lutein), vitamin Cvitamin Evitamin Kmagnesiummanganesefolatebetaineironvitamin B2calciumpotassiumvitamin B6folic acidcopperproteinphosphorus,zincniacinselenium and omega-3 fatty acids." It's also virtually calorie free, so you can indulge as much as you want. However, spinach also contains oxalate, which will inhibit the absorption of the iron. The amount of oxalate can be reduced by boiling the spinach quickly. Be it this way or that, I'm sure at least part of all the goodies in spinach will be absorbed, oxalate or not. 

As I said before, the Finnish spinach pancake is always served with lingonberries or lingonberry jam. However, it seems it's absolutely impossible to get lingonberries on this godforsaken island. Well, actually you can get them from Scandinavian kitchen in London, and I have to get around there next time I'm down to London. As I had no lingonberries, I thought I could do some tweaks to the recipe. First tweak is adding something with a lot of flavour to replace the lingonberries. Instead of going for something sweet and tangy, I went for salty and added feta cheese. Then I wanted to make it dairy free (well, as dairy free as something with feta can be...) as well as wheat free, so instead of doing a pancake batter with milk and wheat flour, I substituted with rice milk and rice flour. I have become a huge fan of rice flour, it works really well in pancakes as it gives a more crispy texture than wheat flour. 

The batter is rather runny, therefore these are more like crepes than pancakes. Don't even think you can cook them to be small pancakes without a proper pancake pan (which is another thing that Brits apparently don't do, need to bring one with me from back home next time I go), the batter will spread to fill the whole pan. I didn't let that bother me, I just cooked them big in a regular pan. You also need to have some patience cooking the crepes, as they benefit from being cooked slowly on medium heat, and should not be flipped until properly cooked on one side to stay whole through the flipping process. If you have a bit of patience, you will be rewarded by some great tasting and almost healthy (apart from the huge amount of carbs...) crepes.

Rice-crepsies (makes 6 big crepes):
500ml rice milk
166g rice flour
3 eggs
1tbsp butter
200g spinach
100g feta cheese

Be patient and let the underside cook well before flipping the crepe.

The howto:
Mix rice milk, eggs, melted butter and rice flour. To give the batter a better consistency and making the crepes easier to cook, let the batter stand for at least an hour, stirring every once in a while. This allows the rice flour to puff up in the liquid. If you use wheat flour, you don't need to let the batter rest for such a long time. Chop up the spinach, and cook quickly in a pan until it has started to wilt a bit. Then add the wilted spinach and crumble in feta. Cook on a non-stick pan on medium heat, letting the crepe cook well on one side with lots of small bubbles forming on the surface before turning it over. 

1 serving (2 crepes) contains 500 kcal, 19g fat, 64.6g carbs and 16.8g proteins. It also contains 133% of your recommended daily amount of Vitamin A!

The verdict:
The crepes require a bit of work to cook, but are definitely worth it. Substituting regular milk and wheat flour with rice milk and flour give the pancakes a bit of a different taste from what I would expect from a traditional Finnish spinach pancake. Of course if you never have had them, you don't know what to expect so you might not be as impressed as I was. I personally think the substitutions were very successful (but I'm admittedly a bit biased...), and this is a very different dish from the original, which was my intention. I also think the combination of spinach and feta is absolutely lovely (although not very original), the salty feta and the mild taste of the spinach just work so well together. I didn't season with salt or pepper, as I think the feta is salty enough, and the dish doesn't need pepper, but you can add some if you want. Thanks to the rice flour, the crepes have a great crispy texture despite being cooked on a non-stick pan with no oil or butter. I will certainly be making this again, but I'm also going to experiment a bit with substituting part of the flour with quinoa flour or rye flour to see what it does to the taste. Oh and if you can get your hands on fresh nettles, replacing or partly substituting the spinach with nettles is amazing. Just wear gloves if you are picking them yourself!