Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas spreads

A picture collection of meals over Christmas.
Christmas Eve--duck foie gras from Victor Hugo markets in Toulouse, ham glazed in pineapple and star anise sauce, potato and egg salad, green salad

Christmas Day--roast turducken(turkey, duck and chicken roll with fig and pistachio stuffing); nectarine, basil and boccocini salad, fresh beetroot salad, steamed new potatoes with herbs, mango and chilli salsa

Christmas Day entree: prawn cocktail with tiger prawns, avocado, shredded lettuce and home-made Mary Rose sauce

Christmas Day table

Christmas log

Boxing Day: ham glazed with sour cherry and creme de cassis sauce; home-grown Puy lentil and herb salad; home-grown potato salad; green salad; couscous and pomegranate salad

Boxing Day dessert: pavlova

Post-Christmas soup: ham stock, home-grown onions and herbs and garlic with a pesto made from chopped cashews, herbs, garlic, chilli

Post-Christmas lunch: smoked trout with mustard and sour cream sauce, truffle salami, dolmades, cheeses,home-made pickled plums,  home-made brioche, scones, bread rolls

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Two yummy festive cakes

Chocolate and cherry cake
Frangourou Christmas log

Two gorgeous and easy cakes for festive celebrations!

The first is a chocolate and cherry cake I've adapted from a Black Forest style, the second an adaptation of the traditional French Christmas log--a cake I make every year for the family Christmas lunch. Both are easy--the log particularly so, as it does not even require any baking--and super delicious of course!

Chocolate and cherry cake
150 g dark cooking chocolate
150 g castor sugar
150 g unsalted butter
3 heaped tablespoons self raising flour, sifted
5 eggs
pinch salt

Melt the chocolate in a pan over low heat(add a little water first to stop it from sticking). Still over low heat, stir in the sugar. When all sugar mixed in, take pan off heat and cut the butter into small pieces. Put pan back on heat and stir in the butter a little at a time. Now slowly add in the flour, stirring constantly, and continue stirring even when mixed in, till it begins to thicken. Take pan off heat. Heat oven to 180 C, and get a round cake tin ready, buttering the bottom and sides and dusting with flour, or using baking paper.
Separate the eggs one by one--put the egg whites in a bowl, but add each egg yolk to the chocolate mix and stir in. When all egg yolks are used up, beat the egg whites till stiff, adding the pinch of salt, and fold into the cake mix. Put mixture into the tin and bake for about 40--45 mins. (Test if cooked by inserting knife into mix after about 40 mins)
Make a coating for the cake of more melted dark chocolate(I actually used Lindt's dark chocolate with orange pieces, delicious!) -You melt the chocolate over low heat with around 25 g of unsalted butter, a tablespoon of full cream and a tablespoon of icing sugar. Coat the cake with it when it's cold, and add halved sweet black cherries as decoration. Serve with whipped cream and/or icecream.

Super easy, super delicious frangourou Christmas Log cake(requires no baking, can be made Christmas Eve).
This was my mother's invention, we had it every Christmas when we were kids, and I still make it every Christmas.
1 packet sponge finger biscuits
200 g unsalted butter, melted
1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)
half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)
Cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.
Crush all the biscuits, add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That's what you do then--shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can also decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, rose petals, sugar holly, whatever you feel like!

To everyone I wish a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah, and every other seasonal festivity, and a happy New Year. See you in 2015. A bientôt!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Brillat-Savarin, philosopher of food

Reblogged from an earlier post of mine, for a bit of pre-Christmas reading!

The Philosopher in the Kitchen..Very French-sounding concept, that, isn't it? It's actually the English title of 'La physiologie du gout' (Physiology of taste) by the great French writer on gastronomy, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin(1755--1826). It's a gorgeous book, full of witty and intriguing anecdotes, stories from his life, sharp observation, funny theorising and precise and amusing aphorisms, and I love it and frequently dip into it.

Born in Belley, in the Savoy region of France in 1755, Brillat-Savarin studied law, medicine and chemistry and became a lawyer in his home town. In 1789 at the outbreak of the Revolution, he was sent as a deputy to the newly formed National Assembly where he served for a short while. He later became Mayor of Belley in 1793, but during the Terror fell foul of Robespierre and his gang and with a price on his head, fled into Switzerland. One of the loveliest and most characteristic of stories about him is that when he was fleeing in danger of his life, he still stopped for lunch at an inn and had an excellent meal, and never mind the revolutionary soldiers hot on his trail! But to cap it all off, those very same soldiers also stopped to have a good lunch--proof that even in a revolution, gastronomy is to be treated with respect in France!

Later, Brillat-Savarin emigrated to America, where he spent a few years, earning his living by giving French lessons and playing the violin in an orchestra(he was also a gifted musician) but returned to France in 1797, under Napoleon's Directoire, and became a magistrate, living in peace, honour and gastronomic bliss in Paris for the rest of his life. He'd often written as a hobby, but was finally persuaded by his friends to write a book compiling his many observations, anecdotes and theories on gastronomy. He self-published La Physiologie du Gout in December 1825, but modestly, did not append his name to it. The book was an immediate success--and soon 'tout Paris' had guessed the identity of the author, and Brillat-Savarin was famous. But he did not long enjoy his fame, dying in February 1826.

His book has had a long and honoured life in France ever since then, and in the greatest accolade of all, his name was given to a delicious soft cheese from Normandy, the Brillat-Savarin, and to a baba-like succulent yeast cake, the Savarin.

Philosopher in the Kitchen is most certainly not a standard cookbook--there are only a few recipes--but it's a great pleasure to read, with a timeless, engaging appeal. For it is not only about gastronomy as both a science and an art--but above all as a way of life. Brillat-Savarin was a gourmet, a raconteur and a bon vivant(funnily apposite, isn't it, how all those terms have to be rendered in French even in English, as it were!)but he also truly was a philosopher and his mind ranged widely over many subjects.

His book does not confine itself to observations on cooking or food and drink in general--he has chapters on all sorts of aspects of human life, such as sleep and dreams, and even including death! His historical and literary erudition is worn very lightly and though some of his theorising seems quaint now, a lot of it is still very relevant indeed and has been very influential. He was the first to suggest a low-carb diet as a way of countering obesity, for instance. And some of his aphorisms have entered common parlance. For instance, it was he who coined the famous aphorism, 'Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.'

But there's lots more worth quoting from in this book, here are a few for your pleasure:

The fate of nations depends on the way they eat.

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.

The Creator, who made man such that he must eat to live, incites him to eat by means of appetite, and rewards him with pleasure.

The man who invites his friends to his table and fails to give his personal attention to the meal they are going to eat, is unworthy to have any friends.

Another gorgeous aphorism which isn't rendered as such but which I'm paraphrasing from one of his chapters, on the senses, is this:

There are six senses--sight, hearing, smell, taste; touch--and love.

And to finish, here's an extract from a fabulous and amusing short chapter entitled 'Privations' which I think encapsulates some of this book's enduring charm:

First parents of the human race, whose gourmandism is historical: you lost all for an apple, what would you not have done for a truffled turkey? But in the earthly paradise there were no cooks or confectioners. How I pity you!

Great kings who laid proud Troy in ruins, your valour will go down from age to age; but your table was pitiful. reduced to ox-thighs and the backs of swine, you never knew the charms of fish-stew, nor the bliss of chicken fricassee. How I pity you!

Aspasia, Choloe, and all you others whom Grecian chisels made eternal for the despair of the beauties of today, never did your charming mouths taste the suavity of rose or vanilla meringue; you scarcely even advanced as far as gingerbread. How I pity you!

Invincible paladins, celebrated in the songs of troubadours, when you had smitten giants hip and thigh, set damsels free and wiped out armies of the foe, no black-eyed captive maiden brought you sparkling champagne, Madeira malvoisie, or our great century's liqueurs; you were reduced to ale or Suresnes wine. How I pity you!

And you too, gastronomes of 1825, sated already in the midst of plenty, and dreaming now of novel dishes, you will never know the mysteries science shall reveal in 1900, mineral esculences perhaps, liqueurs distilled from a hundred atmospheres; you will never see what travellers as yet unborn shall bring from that half of the globe which still remains to be discovered or explored:

How I pity you!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trinity celebration 5: Le Gateau Russe

The paperback edition of Trinity: The Koldun Code, is now out, and as the final reposting in this series of Russian-inspired pieces, I'm putting up again the beautiful recipe my husband David devised to recreate the 'Gateau Russe', or Russian Cake, my favourite cake ever, which as you'll see was devised in Southwest France, adapting the recipes of Russian emigres. Recently, a Russian friend told me that in fact this cake was very popular in Russia--but that the story went there that it was first devised in--Kiev! So it is called a Kievski there...or maybe not, these days :)

Celebration cake: David's beautiful Gateau Russe
Whenever we went back to Biarritz, when I was a kid, and were taken on one of our favourite outings, to the wonderful Dodin patisserie, I would always ask for the same cake: a 'Russe', or 'Russian'. This wonderful cake, made of hazelnut or almond meringue, layered with butter cream that was either flavoured with coffee or hazelnut, tasted like a slice of heaven to me, with its combination of breautiful crunchy meringue and lusciously smooth flavourful butter cream. It's a cake you only ever find in patisseries in the South of France, and only in the south-west at that--you never see it in the patisseries of Paris, or anywhere else in France. So you could get it in Toulouse and Biarritz but not Marseille, for instance. I didn't know why it was called a 'Russe'. Though I'm not sure who first devised it, I'd hazard a guess its origin might be in Biarritz, which was full of Russian exiles after 1917. Dodin's Patisserie has been going since the 19th century and though it lays claim to being the originator of the famous (and delicious)chocolate cake, the 'Beret Basque'(so-called because its shape ressembles the famous Basque headgear) it does not claim to have birthed the Russe, though its examples were always wonderful. (By the way, if you want to drool over some of Dodin's beauties, here is their website: )
Anyway to get back to my Russe, it's something that I not only loved in childhood but now too. But I always thought I had to wait to get back to South-west France to indulge in it again. I thought it would be one of those sorts of cakes that would be too difficult to pull off for a home cook and so each birthday in Australia, I'd put in a request for my second-favourite cake, the Gateau Moka. This is also a gorgeous cake--a Genoise sponge layered with coffee butter cream, and David, my husband, has made it superlatively well for many years. But a Gateau Moka is not easy to make too far ahead of time and transport and as my birthday was going to be in Sydney this year, I knew I'd have to think again. I remembered seeing the 'Swallow's Nest' cake in the Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow and thought, how about that, and then started thinking, that sounds a bit like a 'Russe'--and then David said, well, meringue's much easier to make ahead of time, why don't I have a go at a Russe? He made me describe it and started looking up recipes--and then made his own version which turned out spectacularly well and which proved a huge hit at the birthday party!
Here's his recipe for a beautiful 'Davidov' which I think I'll dub his version of the 'Russe'! And it shows that a home cook can indeed pull off a Russe as well as any patissier--all my siblings, who'd tasted the 'real' Russes, agreed that it reproduced exactly the look and texture and flavours we all loved at Dodin's!
The various bits of the Davidov cake can be made well ahead of time--several days ahead in fact. If you do that you need to conserve the meringue in an airtight tin and the coffee butter cream in the fridge. As the butter cream will harden in the fridge, you'll need to warm it up slightly when you are assembling the cake, or you'll break the meringue. This cake will serve up to 15 people. (It did at the party anyway!)

Ingredients for meringue layers and individual meringue rosettes for decoration: 10 egg whites, 400 g castor sugar, 2 tablespoons cornflour, 150 g hazelnut meal. You will also need, for decoration on last meringue layer, some crushed roasted hazelnuts.

Method: Beat egg whites till stiff, add sugar bit by bit, beating well after each addition till you get a beautiful glossy meringue. Mix cornflour and hazelnut meal together, fold into meringue mix. On one greased or baking-papered tray, pipe some meringue rosettes for decoration; on another two or three, the meringue layers(this one had three layers). Bake in a slow oven(150 C) for an hour or so, till done(biscuit-coloured and reasonably dry.)

Ingredients for coffee butter cream: 6 egg yolks, 450 g butter(David used a mixture of 300 g unsalted, 150 g salted, but you can use just unsalted if you like), 2/3 cup castor sugar, 1/2 cup hazelnut syrup(or light corn syrup, or pure maple syrup--David used the hazelnut syrup--Monin from France which can be used to flavour coffee etc), coffee essence or make your own as David did with 2 tablespoons instant coffee and two tablespoons boiling water--it should be a thick gooey mixture--you can also use a small amount of strong espresso).

Method: Dissolve the sugar in the syrup in a pan on stove. Take off stove and let cool a little. Meanwhile beat egg yolks till pale and foamy. Little by little, mix the warm(but not hot)sweet syrup into the egg mixture. When you have incorporated it all, cut the butter into small pieces and add to the mixture, beating in well so butter melts and makes a thick cream(you can make this in the food processor if you have one.) The cream can now be used if you are putting together the cake or it can go in fridge till you put the cake together. (Remember to warm it before use.)

Putting cake together: Put the first layer of nut meringue on the plate, spread with some of the butter cake. Layer the next round of meringue, repeat, till you have used up the meringue layers and most of the butter cream(but keep some for the top and maybe the sides if you want. On the last layer, spread the rest of the butter cream, and decorate with the meringue rosettes and crushed roasted hazelnuts.