Making borscht

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So I thought it might be nice to actually post one of my own recipes, rather than just my experience with other people’s.

My dad used to make borscht a lot when I was little, and then it kind of went off my radar for years. I think that a lot of people’s only experience of it is getting rid of skunk-stink in Rugrats, but a while back I decided to try making it and, after some refinements, this is the recipe I’ve settled on. It’s probably not strictly authentic, or correct, but it has the taste that I’m after with borscht, and is visually appealling.

Ingredients
(Serves four)

1 large onion (or 2 small)
2 sticks celery
2 large potatoes
5-6 fresh beetroot
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 bunch fresh dill
1.5 pints stock
Sour cream to serve

Method

First, finely chop the onion and, in a large heavy pan, fry it off in a little oil until soft. Roughly chop the celery, and add it to the pan, along with the caraway seeds, fennel seeds and chopped dill, reserving a little dill for a garnish.

Fry this mixture gently for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, and meanwhile dice the potatoes (you can leave the skin on). Top and tail the beetroot, and peel off any rough patches. (You can peel the whole thing if you like.) Chop the beetroot into rough chunks and add it to the pan along with the potato. You probably could use pickled beetroot here – it would save on some preparation – but I really prefer fresh. The vinegar in pickled beetroot takes away some of that lovely earthy flavour in the beetroot, and could leave the soup a bit acidic.

Stir the potato and beetroot through with the onion and other ingredients for a minute or two, to make sure that it is all well mixed together.

Add the stock to the pan. I tend to use pork or ham stock, because that’s strictly speaking more traditional it, as I understand, but chicken stock works too, and you could of course use vegetable stock if you wanted to keep the soup vegetarian. I think beef stock would be a bit overpowering, though.

Bring the soup to the boil briefly, and then return to a simmer. Cook for around twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Avoid overcooking it, because the colour will start to leach out of the beetroot and you’ll lose that lovely purple colour.

At this point, you’ve got options. You can either blend the soup in a food processor to make it smooth, or you can keep it more chunky. I tend to go halfway. I take a potato masher and roughly mash some of the potatoes and beetroot in the pan, to break them up and thicken the soup, while still leaving some good chunks. Make sure you turn the heat right down when you do this, and avoid splashing yourself because, well, beetroot stains wonderfully.

Make sure that the soup is heated through thoroughly, and serve with crusty bread and, if you like, a generous spoon of sour cream and a sprig of dill to garnish.

The soup keeps up to three days in a sealed pot in the fridge, and is just as good after a day or two, as long as you make sure it’s piping hot when you serve it.

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Muffins merely made in the microwave

Because who can resist a bit of alliteration?

The Book
Harumi’s Japanese Cooking| Harumi Kurihara
(Conran Octopus, 2004)

The Recipe
Steamed Cream Cheese Muffins

The Reason
I’ve had this book for ages, and it’s one of the few that I actually use regularly, but I’ve never ventured into the desserts section of the book before. Add in the fact that it was one of the few nice days of the summer so I wanted something not too heavy, and there we go.

The Cooking
Ha! Well, they’re stupidly easy. Microwave stuff. Mix stuff. Microwave stuff again. End of. The most complicated bit was lining the ramekins with baking parchment and making little clingfilm tents so that they steam properly. That and actually gathering the ingredients. For some reason, the supermarkets were conspiring against me and either not selling cream cheese or not selling cream. Well, there were selling cream cheese, but I don’t think the world is ready for garlic and chive and vanilla muffins. There’s really not a lot to say about them, in terms of preparation. It’s interesting to find things that are baked without the oven; I guess it partly stems from so many Japanese flats being tiny little shoeboxes and a lot of people not even having ovens. That sidebar dealt with, in summary: easy.

The result

Attractive, I’m sure you’ll agree

Yeah… these aren’t going to win any awards for presentation or get me a pastry chef internship any time soon. But given that that were made in the microwave, I don’t think they’re too ugly. And they do look rather like the ones in the book, so I’m confident that they’re meant to look like that. The microwave mug cake that was doing the internet rounds a year or two ago was really not pleasant to look at, all lumpy and bulbous where it boiled over the mug. At least these have kept their shape and are a fairly pleasant yellow colour. I’m not entirely sure they deserve the name ‘muffins’ to be honest, but there you go.

I think I may have overcooked them slightly, because they’re a bit spongy. But on the other hand, perhapsyou can’t set your sights too high with microwave cake. They’re light, and fresh-tasting, but I think they’d really benefit from being served with fruit, say, or even ice-cream. They’re not quite … satisfying enough by themselves.

Horribly misshapen pretzels

So, I’ve neglected this a bit. Suffice to say Real Life Stuff has been in the way a bit, but I’m determined to keep it going, and I’ve still been doing a bit of cooking.

The Book
Street Food | Rose Grant

(The Crossing Press, 1988)

The Recipe
Chewy Soft Pretzels

The Reason
Put simply, my flatmate was in the mood for pretzels. So I made pretzels. (Aren’t I an amazing person to live with?) Also, pretzels are amazing, and it was a recipe from a new book, so it was a good plan. Street Food is fun, because it’s got all sorts of details about the various, erm, street foods it covers. It roams all over the world – the USA, Europe and Asia, with recipes from Baltimore Crab Cakes to Croque Monsieur and Pad Thai. Apparently pretzels arose in the fifteenth century when a monk who didn’t want to waste any dough from the unleavened bread he was making rolled the scraps to represent people praying. The more you know.

The Cooking
Hoo boy. This did not go brilliantly. I suffered from the usual problem of too big a batch. It was to make 20 pretzels, if not quite the size of the New York street vendor ones, then definitely heading in that direction. The dough ended up far too elastic and stretchy, so for the most part I couldn’t shape them properly. In turn, when I boiled them, they mostly kind of drooped off the edges of the slotted spoon and lost their shape even more. I think I need to steal the giant flat pierced ladle that my dad used to use to make potato latkas. So I ended up mostly rerolling them all into just stubby little pretzel sticks instead. Which is fine, because the whole point of pretzels is the salty oily chewy amazingness; the shape is secondary. And no, I am NOT just saying that because I couldn’t get the shape right. Nope. No siree.

The result

Pretzels. After a fashion.

Sticks. Not pretzels.

 

Well, you be the judge. It was basically a lot better when I gave up trying to shape them and just baked them as nobbly little sticks. But tastewise, hummunuh hummunuh. Even the places that sell pretzels (like Pret, say) do them with poppy seeds or sesame seeds. I did a few sesame seeds but let’s be honest, what I wanted was proper monstrous chewy but also crunchy pretzels with salt crystals on. And that’s what I got. Salt is good. The two of us ate pretty much the whole batch in two days, so something must have been right. I think if/when I make them again, I’ll just make them smaller so that the shape is more manageable, but other than that I’m marking them in the success column.

 

Jaffa cakes!

So, this isn’t a recipe. This is my ‘bored at work and having an idea that might be interesting and then actually following through on it’ experiment. I generally don’t get beyond the ‘have an idea’ stage, so yay me. Progress!

That idea was basically: ‘I bet I could make Jaffa Cakes’. All it is is sponge base, orange jelly, and chocolate. How hard can it be?

I gave it a try. I made a sponge cake mix, but rather than baking it in cake tins, I smoothed it onto a cookie sheet, kind of like you would a Swiss roll. (Although this would never have worked as a Swiss roll; way too stiff.) Once it was cooked, which was barely any time at all, I cut out a bunch of cookie cutter circles – I guess 1.5 inch. That obviously left me with a whole load of non-circle cake mix, but that’s hardly the end of the world. ‘Oh no, I have to eat cake!’

Then I needed to make the jelly. So I got some orange juice (with bits, in case that matters), and some agar flakes. I was undecided between gelatine and agar, but vegetarian friends demanded agar, I guess in the misguided belief they’d get to eat some, which: lol no. I think agar is better, really, because I get a bit grossed out about ground-up bones if I think about gelatine too much. Also, it’s not like you an easily get hold of free-range gelatine, and I get weird visions about industrial farmed animals and all that stuff, because my brain likes to take unpleasant ideas and run with them. So agar it was, but that stuff is expensive. £5, compared with about 70p for the same amount of gelatine. Oh well, it just means I’ll have to make lots of jelly, and I’ve already got ideas for that (green tea, maybe Pimm’s in the summer, ooh, maybe coconut milk).

I’d literally never made a jelly other than from blocks before, and I’d certainly never used agar. But I just had to boil up the orange juice with the agar flakes (1 tablespoon per cup/240 ml, fact fans) and then let it set. I used the cookie sheet again, because I needed it to be flat and thin. It worked better than I had hoped. It didn’t want to cool down at first, but I lost patience and shoved it in the fridge, and then it set within like ten minutes.

I took the cookie cutter one size down and cut out circles of jelly. It took a little while to work out how best to remove them, but in the end I worked out a method: slide the jelly circle onto a pallete knife, place the sponge circle on top of that, and then flip them over. A couple were a bit misshapen, but it was pretty successful.

Again, there was a lot of non-circle leftovers, and I confess that in this instance I just threw it away. Bad Joel. Wasteful.

Then I just melted down some pain chocolate in a bain marie. Well, I say bain marie. A cereal bowl over a pan of water, obviously. I didn’t want to try dipping two-part biscuits into hot chocolate, because they’d probably slide apart or melt or otherwise collapse, so I just painted it on with a pastry brush. They didn’t look the most delicate or anything, but it did work. They looked like this:

Kind of clumsy, but lookit! There’s a layer of orange jelly and everything! They tasted pretty good. The fresh orange worked against the richness of the chocolate to keep them from being too rich, and the sponge was light. Cooking it in the tray made it a bit crisper, which worked well; I was a bit worried they’d be too soft and collapse, but they didn’t.

I definitely need to work on my Presentation Skills, as India Fisher would undoubtedly say on Masterchef, but as a complete wild idea experiment, they were really successful. I know that I can cook from recipes, but it’s reassuring to know that I can try stuff from my own brain and it can work. It makes me think I can go further with baking, which is kind of cool.

Christening the stand mixer

I’ve been a bit lax, haven’t I?

Not at baking, so much, but at writing about it. I’ve been applying for jobs, and playing lots of Mass Effect 3, and also being really ill, so that accounts for most of it.

I’ve been making more stuff, though. I made some lavender shortbread. I made the New Zealand delicacy Lolly Cake (cut up foam sweets, crushed up biscuits, melted butter and condensed milk, rolled in coconut).

And the, for my birthday, I got a stand mixer from my flatmate. Hurrah!

The first thing I made with it was a sponge cake. Well, the first thing I made was a failure, because even a stand mixer can’t apparently handle chilled butter like I thought it could. So after I scraped out the bowl and cleaned it all off and started again with some softened butter, I made a sponge cake. It was … well, it made a huge difference. The butter and sugar mix really did get fluffy, and stayed thus once the flour was in. So there was just *more* cake. The mixer was also great for the buttercream icing.

I tried to be a bit inventive and wasn’t entirely successful. I was going for a green tea frosting, but I just brewed some very strong tea and mixed it in once it was cool. It didn’t really work, becase it made it way too liquidy, which I then had to compensate for with more butter and sugar. It stiffened, but it wasn’t really ideal. The maple frosting from the other week worked a lot better. Also, in the bowl it had a definite green tea taste that wasn’t really present in the cake.

It was still tasty. And the sponge was super-light. It looked like this:

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Not my finest hour, I’m sure we can all agree.

Then I made some bread. I thought I’d be adventurous, (well, for a given value of adventurous) so I went for half white flour, half wholemeal. I love making bread, but confess I’m just not good at pulling the dough together in the first place. It ends up bitty, or too wet, or ragged. The dough hook took care of that for me in about six seconds. At that point I wasn’t too sure if I should then keep the hook going or grab the dough and knead. I ended up doing a bit of both, which probably wasn’t ideal.

My flat suffers from a glaring absence of suitable places to prove dough. So my bread’s never as good as I feel it could be if I had an airing cupboard or some other cozy little nook. Anyway. The bread was decent enough. It looked like this.

 

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Because for some reason I thought I’d be ‘rustic’ rather than just use a loaf tin like a normal person.

I did, however, use the loaf tin to make banana bread. There are obviously a thousand thousand recipes for banana bread, but I found a pretty simple one that was low on butter and sugar, and fairly high on flour. And REALLY high on bananas. Like, 500 g of bananas. That’s more than all the other dry ingredients combined. I did half and half with the flour again, because why not. And threw in some vanilla extract, because why not. And threw some sliced almonds on top, because why not. But I also learned that even when using over-ripe bananas deliberately, there are some bananas that you do NOT want to use. A banana should not be of feathery consistency.

The stand mixer was a total boon, because the recipes are all ‘mashed bananas’ and I’m all ‘screw that, the machine can deal with it’. And it did. It got a far more thorough mix than I could have done by hand.

And it looked like this:

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It was very well received. And it’s nice to have something to make that’s ‘puddingy’ but not obscenely bad for you, because the stuff I’ve mostly been making tends towards the ‘butter, sugar, butter, flour, butter and MOAR BUTTER’ end of the spectrum.

So yes, that’s what I’ve been up to. Nothing too adventurous, but keeping my hand in.

Rosemary shortbread

Yup. Time to delve into the Flour cookbook again. I swear one day I’ll make something that isn’t by Joanne Chang..

The Book
Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe | Joanne Chang
(Chronicle Books, 2010)

The Recipe
Rosemary shortbread

The Reason
It was my mum’s birthday, so I wanted to bake something for her. She likes shortbread, and these seemed fun and interesting. Also, logistically, it’s hella easier to transport some biscuits than it is an iced cake. Or indeed any cake. Plus it was something I’d never tried before, and the whole point of this project i to get myself doing new things.

The Cooking
I have to say, in the absence of an electric mixer, I’m seriously glad that I had my little brainwave of microwaving the butter before trying to blend it in with the sugar. It’s hardly revolutionary and it’s not exactly got Heston Blumenthal quaking in his boots, but compared with beating and beating and beating to soften the butter, it’s amazing. Yes, I’m amazed that I can walk and chew gum at the same time, too. I’m learning.

Because they’re so buttery (obviously, being shortbread) you’ve got to chill the dough before you roll it out. It wasn’t really firming up though, so I whacked it in the freezer for a few minutes, which seemed to be a mistake, as the dough kept cracking and was still very sticky. But with a bit of reworking and a bit more flour thrown in, it got back to the right texture.

You’re meant to cut out regular shapes with a knife but I have zero confidence in my ability to get things consistent, so I just used a cookie cutter. The advantage was the regular size achieved; the disadvantage was the leftover dough after cutting out. I ended up throwing a bit away, because I’d already filled up three baking sheets with cookies and I didn’t want to do another batch, especially as I’d have to rechill the dough.

I needed to use a pallete knife to slide them off the counter onto the baking sheet. I’m not sure how I ever even tried to do baking without a pallete knife to be honest.

The Cooking
They look like this:

Yes, yes, I did put them on tissue paper and toss about some sprigs of rosemary in an attempt to get all food stylist in the hizzay. And what? In my defence, the tissue paper was to wrap them in to go into a gift bag for my mum. (Seriously. So much easier than a cake.)

Tastewise, the rosemary wasn’t really detectable. There was only a teaspoon in the whole mix, so I think I’d up that a bit in future. I was paranoid about undercooking, and as a result they got a wee bit overcooked, but not to the extent that it affected the taste.

I hate ‘melt in the mouth’, as a phrase, because it’s a cliche, and always sounds kind of gross and pervy. Nonetheless, that’s what they did. Which is perhaps unsurprising given that they’re about 75% butter. My mum liked them, so yay for that.

What I’m really liking about this whole project, though, is that it’s giving me a basis of solid recipes that I can experiment from. I’m probably going to do some lavender ones (to use up the lavender sugar that will otherwise sit there forever). And some coconut ones because coconut. Any other suggestions?

Maple sponge cake

Hooray! I decided to be inventive and it wasn’t a desperate failure.

I’d entered the ‘I want to make something and I don’t know what’ phase again, but then I had thought. I’d got almost a whole bottle of maple syrup left over from Shrove Tuesday (because maple syrup and bacon is the best thing to have on pancakes and I’ll cut anyone who says otherwise) and no real means of using it up.

So I made a basic sponge, and added a bit of maple syrup to the mix, just for ease of spreading in the tins, really. Then for the icing I made a buttercream and thinned it out with maple syrup. So yes, that’s butter, sugar, and then liquid tree-sugar basically. I ended up with so much icing that I managed to do a middle layer, and a crumb coat, and then fully ice it, sides included. I was only aiming for enough to keep the pecans on top.

Of course, I salted the cake batter and the icing, which was definitely a good thing. The salt, along with the slight smokiness in maple syrup means that it’s not too cloyingly sweet. Which is not to say that I can’t feel my arteries slamming shut after eating a piece, or that the sugar rush I’m feeling right now isn’t making me dizzy, or that I’m not fairly sure that I’m seeing unicorns. Because I can and it is and I am. Just that it doesn’t TASTE too sweet.

It looks like this:

I’m pretty pleased with it, to be honest. It’s not the wildest creation ever, but it’s something that I did without a recipe and it worked. I work without recipes all the time for savoury cooking, making sauces and what have you, but experimenting with baking is still pretty new. It gives me confidence to try more inventive stuff in future.