Monday, November 29, 2010

Decorating a cake

For baby boy's 1st birthday I thought it brave and wise to make his cake all by myself. In the past I have ordered cake from professionals usually with a picture on top that I had, at least, put together myself.

I have a problem with my oven, where everything that gets baked, comes out with a dome on top. And quite flat on the sides. I baked 4 x cakes using medium sized loaf tins. I used 2 x box cake for this. The "dome tops" all were cut off to make it flat for decorating. The 'cockpit' of the engine was two x thirds of one of the cakes put on top of each other.
Some tips:
* Apparently chocolate cake lasts longer than vanilla so I used that.
* Do not bake the cake and try to assemble on the same day. You will have to do a lot more plastering from broken cake parts (too soft). So: Bake on Thursday. Assemble on Friday (evening). Eat on Saturday.
* Try to avoid wanting to ice anything red. Unless you get the stuff that professionals use. I used the normal 'Red' food colouring and it stayed pink. This didn't quite call out "boy" in my mind. So I kept adding and adding and eventually I got it to a dark, dark pink but by then there was so much colouring in the butter icing it wouldn't mix in but was sort of seperating. I had also by then emptied the 3/4 bottle I had. Needless to say I thought "what the heck" and started to put it on as is. I had at least tested the taste and it was fine.
* To avoid getting cake crumbs in your butter icing when you spread it over, put bucket-loads on top first. Then start to spread it out. And you can not use too much either. Not as if someone's going to complain of too much butter icing. At least not in our family.
Well, the family enjoyed it. That's what counts. Baby boy would hopefully look at the photos one day and think, "Boy, that was a cool cake".

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Making the gravy

Once your meat is done to crumbling goodness, it's time to get the gravy done.

Using some tongs, take out the pieces of meat and then pour the rest of the liquid with the cooked bits of vegetables and herbs into a sieve, letting the liquid run into a stainless steel pot (not aluminium, ever). The meat can be placed on a platter, covered with foil, into a slightly warm oven. Using a wooden spoon, mash the vegetables into the sieve to get as much of the liquid out as possible. (This makes a delicious addition to our dog's dinner.)

Now return the pot with the gravy liquid to the stove. Let it boil rapidly for about 5 minutes then remove from heat. Let it cool down slightly and then, using a deep spoon, skim off most of the fat you can.

Return the pot to the heat and let it gently simmer. For about 1/2 litre (which is what you'll get with 400ml vermouth and 400ml stock plus some boiling water), mix 2 tablespoons of corn flour (Maizena) and a little vermouth just enough to dissolve it. Add this gradually to the gravy while whisking. Let it simmer gently for about 5 minutes. Taste for salt. If it seems a bit "tarty" add 1/2 tablespoon sugar and re-taste.

Pour through a clean sieve again into a gravy boat OR over the meat.

Have some nice fresh bread handy to mop up the gravy juices :)

The basic french cooking method for braised meat

This basic method is used for braising meat (lamb/beef/pork) and makes delicious stews (where the meat is cut into blocks) or whole meat cuts.

I used very thickly cut pieces of lamb chops from the friendly Pick n Pay butcher.
First the meat is browned well on all sides in a pan covered in a film of normal vegetable oil. Be careful that the oil does not burn so you may want to turn down the heat a bit if it gets smoky. Do not use olive oil since it has too strong a flavour. Do this in batches and as they are finished put them into a big enough oven casserole dish (with lid).

Next you add one chopped onion, one sliced carrot (I used 2 since they were a bit skinny) and 2 sliced stalks for celery (1 was too skinny again) to the same oil in the pan. Fry these lightly over medium heat until the onion soften. Be very careful not to burn / toast the onion.

Strew the vegetables over the meat pieces in the casserole dish. Since I made a big dish for 5 people I used 12 lamb cuts and this barely fit into a very large roasting tin. For this amount I used 400ml extra dry vermouth (that's Cinzano for those who have to discover this like I had to :) ) with 400ml beef stock (one beef stock block dissolved in boiling water) in which you stirred 1 tablespoon crushed garlic. Pour this over the meat pieces. If the pieces are sticking out too much, add a little more boiling water. They can stick out by about 5mm.
Into the liquid push 5-6 twigs of thyme and 4-5 twigs of parsley. (Remember this is for quite a large dish.)
Before you put the lid on, take a piece of foil big enough to cover the top and put that over first. Then put the lid on. It provides a nice seal so you don't lose any liquid through evaporation.
Put this into a pre-heated oven of about 160C and cook for about 3 hours. (Or more if you like your meat to fall apart). Check about every hour just to make sure everything is still nice a bubbly.
NEXT: How to finish off your dish with a nice gravy

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Scrambled eggs with a tropical twist

I made a lentil curry the other day and it gets coconut cream in it right at the end. The first time I made it, I added the whole tin and it was way too much and we ended with a lentil-curry-soup. So now I just add a couple of tablespoons to give it the nice flavour and colouring. But there's not much I can do with left-over coconut cream so yesterday, in a flash of inspiration, I added about 2 heaped tablespoons (if the cream has thickened) to my scrambled eggs (4) as I was scrambling them. It was delicious!

4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons thickened coconut cream

Add to heated non-stick pan and scramble as usual.

Bon Appetit!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Ribbon

In some cake and dessert recipes you have to seperate the yolks and egg whites from each other. The whites are usually beaten stiff and added at the end to lighten your batter (see tips in For fresh handmade custards and custard-type desserts such as Crème Brûlée, you only use the yolks. Here is a very nice, easy recipe:

In Mastering the Art of French Cooking and in Julia Child's cooking show (available on DVD on / / etc) she shows how yolks and sugar are beaten to form "a ribbon". This takes a little time and you know you're getting to the end when the yolks and sugar are beaten to a pale yellow colour. And when you lift the beater you'll see the mixture make a beautiful ribbon that falls gentle into the rest of it. Magnifique.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Herb garni/bouquet

In most of the French Cooking recipes, a herb bouquet / garni is called for. The required herbs have to be put into cheese cloth and I have not been able to find this. So as an alternative I put the sprigs of herbs, usually parsley and thyme, into the cooking liquid whole. This can easily enough be fished out later.

Alternatively you can bind the herb sprigs together with a little twine or silicone cooking elastics. I have a picture of that somewhere on the blog. (

Also if the bouquet requires crushed garlic, I just peel whole garlic cloves and cut some shallow slits in them (2-3) to release the flavour. These can just as easily be fished out afterwards.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Egg white disaster

I just baked a "chocolate brownie cake". They just came out of the oven and from outside they look fine. Inside is still a mystery. I did it from a recipe in the Food & Home magazine and it was done and explained with pictures by a chef from a five-star hotel in Johannesburg. In most "fancy" cake recipes you will need to seperate the egg yolks and whites. The whites are beaten to stiff peaks before being folded into the batter right at the end. This is to 'ligthen' the cake.

This turned out to be tricky and nearly a disaster (could still be - depending on the cake's innards).

Here's what happened.

The egg yolks and castor sugar are beaten until light and fluffy. No problem. Then you add a mixture of melted butter, chocolate and cocoa powder. Now things got tricky. What they don't tell you in the recipe is that you need earth moving equipment to mix this stuff. It is THICK. Then you still need to add the flour! Elbow grease is not the word. You need Hercules to help out. After nearly dislocating my shoulder, I could start adding the stiffly beaten egg whites. I've read that when you add egg whites in this manner, you add about a third to 'ligthen' the batter. Once encorporated, you add the rest and then very gently, you fold it in until just mixed. Do not overmix they say otherwise you lose the 'ligthening' aspect of this process. I added a little of the egg whites and started folding it in. But I had a problem. They USED to be stiffly beaten.


So now I had to guess how much egg whites I still had to incorporate. I re-seperated 4 eggs and beat the whites (I forgot to say that in-between the one whisk of my electric hand beater had broken off). This I then folded into the batter. It looked ok.

So, as they say, the proof of the pudding / cake is in the eating. Will do an update once the results are in!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Quick onion fix

If you need to use chopped onions in a dish that is not going to be baked long enough for the onions to get cooked, put the chopped onion in a bowl with about 1 tbsp olive oil and microwave covered for 30 - 60s (depending on how soft you'd like them). Then add them to the rest of the ingredients. This also works for green/red/yellow sweet peppers. E.g. if you're making an omelet, put chopped onion and green pepper in a bowl with 1-2 tbsp olive oil (depending on the volume), microwave for 1 minute before adding to the rest of the omelet topping.

If you want to add onion rings to salad though but don't like that sharp, bitter taste, put the chopped onion in a bowl, just cover with boiling water and let stand for 1 - 2 minutes. Drain well and then add to rest of salad ingredients.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Spinach and Mushroom stuffed shoulder of lamb

I prepared it the day before and wrapped it in clingfilm, ready for the next day.

Above: Browning before adding the liquids

The finale. It was served with potato cakes (made with cream cheese and egg!)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Easy oven steamed fish

Here's a very easy and quick way to put a healthy fish dish on the table.

We have healthy appetites and can feed the kids as well with 2 fresh (not those tiny frozen) hake fillets of a reasonable size.

Pre-heat oven to 220C

Place the fillets on a sheet of foil, large enough to fold and tuck over the fish.

Mix the following together:
2 tbsp melted butter
2 cloves of fresh garlic crushed
1 tbsp chopped parsley and/or 1tsp fresh thyme leaves
Grated rind of one lemon

Spread the butter mixture over the fillets and salt lightly.

Fold the foil over the fish and tuck over nicely so that none of the juices will run out.

If you can put the foil packet on a cast iron pan it will cook very quickly - 25 minutes.
If you don't have a cast iron pan it may take longer. Check the fish after 25 minutes, if it doesn't flake easily and still has that pinkish shiny color, you will have to return it for 5 minutes at a time untill done.

Serve with a nice salad, and some green vegetables (beans / baby marrow / broccoli etc)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Follow the recipe!

I haven't been on the blog for a while due to life. Just life.

But one thing I have been thinking about is how I wasn't worth a pinch of salt in the kitchen before, and I can now quite easily prepare a great meal without going through a recipe.

What I did wrong before was NOT following the recipe. Some people think they know how to cook and actually can, others think they can cook and rather shouldn't. I was probably somewhere inbetween. Once I started learning techniques the whole mystery of cooking was unlocked.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is not a glossy, coffee table type of cookbook loaded with full-color graphics and photos. Instead, there are only a few black and white line drawings where the technique is quite tricky. But if you can read, you can cook.

The trick is, especially as you are training yourself, is to follow each recipe EXACTLY. Do not deviate. Do not skim over it. Study it. Review it. Imagine it. Before you even start. As you progress by cooking more and more of the recipes you'll discover a pattern. You might think to yourself, "But this recipe sounds very familiar. Isnt' it the same as the previous one?" And you might be almost right. The technique is the same with variations in ingredients.

So it is inevitable that as time goes by you will more and more be able to execute a meal without reading in detail the recipe. But this comes with time and practise. Like any skill really.

So I'm off to go and throw together a lovely Coq au Vin, from scratch, from memory. Because I can.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thickening liquids (gravies / sauces)

Did you know that if you add boiling liquid (e.g. boiling milk) to your 'roux' (butter and flour paste) to make a sauce it will not make lumps (or much less so). You must then still continue cooking it because if you don't your sauce will have that "flour" taste.

To thicken a meat sauce: Drain the liquid from the meat through a strainer into another pot. Keep the meat aside. Melt butter in the original casserole pot and when melted add flour (about 1:1 e.g. 2tbsp each). Cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes without browning while stirring. Bring the pot with the liquid to a boil and then add the boiling meat liquid to the flour-paste while beating quickly. It will thicken the sauce nicely. Cook this gravy for about 5 minutes while gently simmering to cook the flour. Then return the meat to the casserole and stir through.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Extracting mushroom water

This was so interesting and I was amazed since I didn't realise mushrooms contained THAT much water!!

Chop mushrooms finely, put handfull at a time into a clean cloth, wrap close and twist so that it squeezes the mushrooms. The water in it gets squeezed out this way and you won't get a watery dish.

I had to do it over the sink so much water came out!

Friday, June 11, 2010

La Paupiette de Garganuta (giant stuffed beef roll) stuffed with Farce Nicoise (Olive, pimento, garlic and parmesan)

Giant stuffed beef roll
The end-result looks fabulous and very impressive and you can tell a white lie and say that it was extremely difficult and time consuming to make. But alas, it's just following the process and not tricky at all.

The tops and sides were wrapped with bacon before using the silicone bands to close the whole thing.

Before being browned (stove top) and then braised (cooked in oven in stock and vermouth):

Served with buttered parsley baby potatoes:

My family did me proud by nearly finishing the whole thing.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Madeleines and loads of butter

I just finished spending 2 hours in the kitchen making Madeleines, a butter icing and a Frangipane (thick almond custard) from scratch.

I made about 100 Madeleines and it's quite time consuming. The Madeleine pan I got has 20 small shapes and it takes about 1 tsp of batter to fill each one. But the time is worth the taste! It's awesome.

They didn't come out quite as pretty as the experts' ( but I'm not complaining.

Then I tried my hand at some butter icing and a "Frangipane" custard that I'm going to use on Mille Feuille ( on Wednesday. Tastes great! But oh my, the butter, the butter, the butter. I went through about one whole block of unsalted butter for the Madeleines, the icing and the custard. And never mind the eggs.

Not for the faint hearted

In Julia Child's biography the writer mentions that Julia and co-authors of Mastering the Art briefly considered and then decided against including Canard à la presse since no one out of only a very few gourmet restaurants owns a "duck press". My first impression of what this is was completely off!

Check this out - if you have it at this restaurant (the oldest in France) you get a certificate. Not sure if it says "brave" or "stupid" on it:

Quiche Lorraine and nifty cooking accessory

Quiche Lorraine

This is so easy to make and if you buy pre-made short crust pastry it's even quicker. Important to note that you have to par-bake the pastry before you add the filling otherwise the pastry might still be raw and the filling cooked.

Nifty cooking accessory: The silicone cooking band

These are really great for anything that needs to be tied and cooked and you can either dispose of them afterwards (if you feel splurgy) or just wash and re-use. A packet contains 25 in 5 different colours so you can make individual items and identify them by colour. These are used to truss a whole chicken (when you fold the wings and legs in before baking) or for any rolled meat dish, like Paupiettes (beef rolls). Below I made a herb bouquet with one:

Pretty isn't it?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sauce brune

First of all I need to say that I would never have thought of cooking a brown sauce for 2 hours and that excludes the preparations which probably took 30min+. But it smells divine. SinceI'm not going to copy recipes directly here (copyright and all that) I can just say, it's got veg, it's got bacon and it's got stock with herbs. And it simmers gently like some secret potion releasing a most glorious aroma.

The sauce is per request to serve something "saucy" with the food and it's been a bit of a puzzle on what to serve with a quiche. Since the "sauce brune" when variated with herbs and butter (sauce brune aux fines herbes) can be served with eggs, I thought to give it a bash. (verdict to follow)

This is what it looks like before the flour is added to brown and the beef stock:

After the stock and the herb bouquet is added:

Quiche Lorraine - easy peasy. The short crust pastry is half-cooked in its pan and awaiting the filling and baking. Don't foresee any problems :)

Short crust pastry

Note on Short Crust Pastry - it works much better if you actually use a pastry cutter. Last time I tried the pastry the butter wasn't worked in enough at this stage and when I added the water it was a soggy, muddy mess. It worked out fine when I added some flour but not ideal since I had to knead it a bit much. Also a note on adding the water. Recipe says 4 - 4.5 tbsp. Rather start by just adding 3 and then add the 4th after some of the flour has been incorporated. Only THEN a couple drops more if needed.

Doing the fraisage might need 2 - 3 repeats to make sure the butter is nicely blended with the flour. But be gentle, yet firm. A bit like with kids I suppose. And don't let the pastry get warm. Rather chill inbetween.

What is fraisage?

A whole new horizon

Ok - so a very dear friend of mine suggested I start a blog, chronicling my new-found interest (dare we say passion) for cooking. French cooking to be specific. My response was that food blogs are so yesterday and it seems everyone is doing them. BUT then I thought that reading some of these blogs have actually helped me thus far in my interest in learning how to cook French. Now, if a total novice at cooking can start to get things right, maybe I can share some failures and successes.

There are probably dozens of people out there who started cooking after seeing the movie Julie and Julia who in part tells the story of Julia Child. Well, I'm one of them and got bitten so bad by the foodie bug that I promptly went and bought BOTH volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking as well as a DVD set containing twelve episodes of The French Chef that aired in America in the 60's and 70's. I've had my books for 2 weeks now and they already look as well-thumbed as old editions.

So - here's my intention to photograph the final products of what I attempt and to give some feedback on the process. I'm cooking from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and although the instructions are absolutely fantastic and fool-proof (idiot-proof in my case) I will see where I can add some insight - and maybe some step-by-step pics of the process.