Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Pan Pugliese

On a cool autumn's morning, there are few more comforts than hearing rain outside as you are bundled up in the warmth of your home. What amplifies this warmth and joy-making is baking bread. You will all know the delights of freshly-baked bread, so I hardly need be too detailed to convince you to bake a loaf or two (even those who are gluten-intolerant may have gorgeous associations with bread baking, and I know of some clever ones that have found ways of adapting bread receipes so that they do not have to miss out).

Personally, I prefer breads with a developed taste. To get this more nuanced flavour, you need to make a starter, whether it be a sponge, poolish, biga or old dough. Not only do starters give great depth to the taste of your bread, they add to the texture of it - adding both airiness and heft. In some Italian breads, a biga is used - this is a quickly kneaded starter that ferments for the better part of a day. It is then added to the rest of the bread ingredients. As the word "starter" indicates, the biga needs at least 12 hours before it can be used.

For today's recipe, a bread that is commonly made in Puglia, Italy, the biga needs to be made at least 15 hours before baking.

Pan Pugliese
(from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Traditions from Around the World)

For the biga:

1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 cup all-purpose flour

1) Dissolve the yeast in the water.
2) Add flour and stir to combine.
3) Knead briefly in a bowl until a soft dough has been formed.
4) Cover the bowl with cling-film, and let stand at room temperature for 12-24 hours (or for up to three days in the fridge).

For the bread:
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
3 cups lukewarm water
biga, as above
5-6 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 cup wholewheat flour (or wholewheat pastry flour)

1) In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in water.
2) Cut biga into 5 pieces and stir into the water, breaking it up with a spoon, loosening it (practically to the extent of dissolving it, but this is not fully achievable).
3) Stir in one cup of all-purpose flour and the salt.
4) Add wholewheat flour, stirring to combine, then add three more cups of all-purpose, one cup at a time, and stirring all the while.
5) Keep one hand dry and one hand wet with warm water for stps 6-. Stir the dough with your wet hand, manoeuvre it like a paddle and turn the dough around on itself, like figure 8s.
6) Add another cup of all-purpose flour with your dry hand. Stir and mix with wet hand for 3-5 minutes, keeping an eye on the consistency, which should be wet but clinging together. If the dough is too liquid, add another 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour and continue stirring.
7) Cover the bowl with cling-film and let the dough stand for at least 3 hours (even overnight). It will rise a bit but will not double in volume.
8) Preheat oven to 250 C/500 F and do not open oven door until 20 minutes after oven has reached this temperature. Place a baking sheet on the lower rack.
9) Open oven door. With wet hands, break dough in half, shape into a mound (tucking edges underneath to smooth out and tighten the surface), then drop onto baking sheet.
10) Decrease temperature to 225 C/450 F after ten minutes.
11) All to bake for a further 20-25 minutes, until bread is well browned (it will also sound hollow when you tap the base).
12) Raise temperature to 250 C/500 F before baking other half of the dough.
13) Let cool for thirty minutes before slicing.

Some breads freeze really well, so you can always pull a pre-baked loaf out the freezer the night before and defrost it on the counter overnight. Some wet breads, though, do not freeze well, for their crusts can become quite tough and tear away as they are sliced, which is the case of today's Pan Pugliese.

This is a bread best eaten the day it has come out of the oven (or even the next day). And who can resist freshly baked bread?

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Saturday, April 18, 2009


Rabbit in Mustard Sauce

Now that Easter is over, it is safe to present a bunny dish. And not of the chocolate variety. Rabbit is often overlooked as a game option, it seems, even though there seem to be more television chefs presenting it to viewers. Rabbit is lean, and it has an undeniably savoury flavour. It is a surprising meat to present to guests. Actually, I don't really hear people talk about eating or cooking rabbit when sharing kitchen tales. Perhaps people are too afraid of others' reactions to say that they like rabbit, but I really think rabbit has fallen by the wayside as an option for dinner (well, for urbanites in New Zealand and in the US (as far as I recall). I hope this post will help change the tide a little bit.

The important thing to remember about cooking rabbit is that it has no real fat, so it has to be helped from going dry. Like most dry food, rabbit goes terribly stringy when cooked for too long and without an adequate provision of fat. As it is gamy and very savoury, it responds quite well to strong ingredients, such as garlic, woody herbs, and mustard, as in today's recipe.

This rabbit dish is really a riff on a typical bistro dish (in the best sense of the term). It is creamy, heady, and gamy. In all, the texture of the rabbit immersed in the cream makes for a comforting dish, so no one should turn their noses up at it, unless of course he or she is vegetarian or has an attachment to fluffy bunnies.

Rabbit in Mustard Sauce

1 small rabbit, approximately 1 kg (2lb), cut into 4 natural pieces (breast and legs)
60g/2oz unsalted butter
1 leek, thinly sliced cross-wise
2 anchovy filets
1 tablespoon juniper berries, lightly crushed
300ml white wine
150ml cream
3 tablespoons dijon mustard
squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

1) Preheat oven to 170 C/325 F.
2) Season rabbit pieces with salt and pepper.
3) Put butter in frying pan, and over a medium-hot flame, add the rabbit pieces. Each size to be bronzed before turning over.
4) Remove rabbit and all butter but for 2 tablespoons liquified butter.
5) Add leek and anchovies, and cook until leeks have softened.
6) Add juniper berries, wine and bring liquid to the boil, then lower temperature to a simmer until the liquid has reduced by half.
7) Add rabbit pieces and bring liquid to simmer again.
8) Cover with foil, then place in the oven for 40-50 minutes until cooked through, turning the rabbit pieces over once.
9) Remove rabbit to a warm plate, place frying pan over medium heat and bring to the boil until syrupy (you could strain the liquor before, in order to remove the onion, if you prefer a smoother sauce).
10) Pour in cream and simmer until slightly thickened.
11) Whisk in mustard and add lemon juice to taste.
12) Add rabbit pieces back to the pan, simmer for 10-15 minutes, then serve.

My angelheart Eric and I love the quality that juniper berries bring to gamy dishes. Their alpine freshness cut through the intensity of flavour that some people might find hard to take at first bite. Knowing that game is not to everyone's liking, the addition of juniper berries helps make rabbit more palatable. Cream, of course, is to most people's liking and distracts a little from rabbit's savouriness. In the spirit of sharing (conversion), I am all for introducing mitigating factors, but the truth is that you can dispense of the juniper berries and even the anchovies for a gamier tasting dish.

I hope this is a good introduction to rabbit. Let me know how you get on.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009


Mjuk Toscakaka

I have an usual love affair for European baked goods. Unusual because I have never really experienced any freshly made...no German spice cookies, no Hungarian cakes, no Austrian or Croatian pastries, no Scandinavian baking at all...you get the point. Really, the only European baked goods I've had are the few I've made after watching Ingmar Bergman, Susanne Bier and Lars von Trier films or after reading about traditional baked offerings for Christmas, St Lucia's Day and St Martin's Day. It seems that I love the idea of heavenly-scented baked goods against a wintry landscape, which speaks directly to the comfort food orientation of my blog.

I have, however, been consistent in my curiosity, for the baked goods I covet and dream of making are always made with spices and are often served with gorgeous jams or preserves. To be served such food in an authentic environment would be sublime, but in the meantime, I will try to realise the fantasy in baby steps. I do not have the confidence to make linzertorte or strudel, but the odd cake or cookie recipe is enough to satisfy my cravings.

Sometimes my curiosity is peaked by what I first think are anomalies, such as using cardamom in cookie or cake batters, which, as it turns out, is commonplace in Scandinavia. Today's post is very simple, and it relies heavily on my preferred nuts: almonds. (Baking with nuts is another of my proclivities.) I have often thought of almonds as belonging to areas with warm climates, so it surprised me that this variation on butter cake would appear in a Swede's repertoire - actually, it is a popular cake made throughout Scandinavia. And that there is a reference to Tosca in the title of the cake, I cannot help but be intrigued...

Mjuk Toscakaka
(from Tamasin Day-Lewis' The Art of the Tart)

For the cake:

2/3 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons water

For the topping:

1/4 cup ground or slivered almonds
4 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon all purpose flour
1 tablespoon milk

1) Preheat oven 180 C/350 F.
2) Cream butter and sugar together until the mixture is smooth in texture and pale in colour.
3) Beat in the eggs little by little.
4) Stir in the vanilla extract.
5) Sift in the flour and baking powder, then beat it in well.
6) Add water, then beat until smooth.
7) Pour the mixture into a prepared baking dish, such as a tart pan.
8) Ensure that the top is smooth before putting on the middle rack in the oven.
9) Bake for 30 minutes.
10) Remove pan from oven, then turn heat up to 200 C/400 F.
11) For the top of the cake, put all ingredients together in a saucepan until combined and heated through.
12) When the mixture reaches boiling point, pour it over the cake in one layer.
13) Continue to bake in the oven until the top has browned. Be careful not to let it burn.

This cake can be served hot or cold, with or without cream. The caramel and almond topping is fragrant, sweet and nutty, giving complexity to the simple, buttery sponge beneath. As for the connection to opera, I cannot quite tell, but it seems there is a cultural tradition of naming cakes after figures in the high arts. Using slivered almonds is traditional, but coarsely grinding them, as I have here, does not appear to affect the overall quality of the cake. Like most baked goods that contain nuts, a slice of this fragrant cake is perfect with coffee.

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