Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dark Chocolate-Cherry Ganache Bars

I'm always on the lookout for new "bar" recipes. I enjoy bars more than brownies (a bold statement, I know), but usually just because bars tend to be a bit more complex than brownies. There are "layers" to bars, more bits and pieces to experiment and fiddle about with.
And they tend not to invoke the almighty kerfuffle that brownies do. You know the one. Cake-like brownies versus fudge-like brownies. Wars have been fought over less.

Bars circumvent this debate entirely because there are literally no limits to their potential.

These, for example, have a nice cocoa-rich shortbread base, an absolute no-no on the brownie front. They also feature (as you can tell from the photo) thick top layer of pure dark chocolate ganache. Now, I suppose that puts them on the "fudge" side of things, but really, that's over-simplifying. Ganache is a horse of an entirely different color, a little bit more delicate than your standard fudge-y brownie.

But, like any fudge brownie, they are dense. I mean, dense. Cutting these into anything resembling brownie shapes would send most people into diabetic shock. For the sake of your audience, cut these as small as you dare. Slivers, even. Trust me, you'll get enough chocolate to last you a lifetime.

Time: 1 hour, plus chilling time

Makes approximately 16-18 bars.


150 grams all-purpose flour (about 1 1/2 cups)

90 grams confectioners’ sugar (about 3/4 cup)

26 grams unsweetened cocoa powder (about 1/4 cup)

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons dark cherry jam (to be fair, raspberry or strawberry would probably work just as well here)

340 grams bittersweet (dark) chocolate, at least 62 percent, chopped (12 ounces)

2/3 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons kirsch, rum, brandy or other spirit

1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel, for sprinkling.

1. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder and fine sea salt. Pulse in the butter and vanilla until the mixture just comes together into a smooth mass. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment or wax paper. Press the dough into the pan. Prick all over with a fork. Chill for at least 20 minutes and up to 3 days.

2. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Bake the shortbread until firm to the touch and just beginning to pull away from the sides, 35 to 40 minutes.

3. Cool in the pan for 20 minutes on a wire rack. Brush jam over shortbread’s surface and let cool thoroughly.

4. Place chocolate in a heatproof bowl.

In a saucepan, bring the cream to a simmer. Pour over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the kirsch. Spread over shortbread. Sprinkle fleur de sel on. Cool to room temperature; cover and chill until firm. Slice and serve.

Soft Polenta with Braised Oxtails and Red Wine Mushroom Sauce

What exactly does one do with leftover oxtails?

Now, there's a question I hadn't expecting to be asking. And yet, there I was. Fresh off the thrill of making oxtail stock for French Onion soup, with a bowlful of slowly braised oxtails and nothing to do with them.

Because, I don't know about you, but oxtails are not usually in my culinary repertoire.

It seemed an absolute shame for these to go to waste, so I went hunting. It seems oxtails, being a cheaper cut of meat, are perfect for long braises and soup bases. Well, wonderful. But what if you were already serving an oxtail-based soup?

Well, as I've always said, there are few things polenta can't solve.

Turns out, oxtails are perfect companions for polenta. The softness of the meat after it's been stewing for 3 hours or so still has just enough bite to balance out the polenta. Add in a red wine sauce with mushrooms and you have yourself a hearty end of winter meal.

This, I should admit, was also my first attempt at a "proper" sauce. I usually have little time for them, but the oxtails needed a flavor boost to round out the polenta dish. The one I opted for was a basic red wine sauce with mushrooms and shallots but ended up being the perfect complement to the other two components. Yes, it takes a good hour to make the sauce ("as it should!" some people might say), but it's wonderfully complex and elevates the lowly polenta and oxtail to new haute cuisine heights.

Braised Oxtails

I don't recommend making these *purely* for this dish, as it takes about 2-3 hours of slow stewing. I used them as leftovers from my French Onion soup recipe, which started with a base of oxtail stock. Now, if you're interested in making oxtail stock (which you should be, as it's fabulous), see here for the recipe. 
And then, behold! You have braised oxtails, ready and willing for polenta purposes.

Otherwise, for this recipe, feel free to substitute roast chicken, pork, or beef as the meat topper to the dish. It's hard to go wrong. 

Soft Polenta

Makes about 4 cups (4-6 servings)

4 cups water

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

Bring the water and butter to a boil in a large saucepan.

Pour in the cornmeal very slowly, whisking constantly.

Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the polenta is thick and comes away from the sides of the pan as it is stirred and the cornmeal has lost its raw taste, 30-40 minutes.

Stir in the Parmesan and the salt. Serve under the oxtails and red wine sauce. 

Red Wine Sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil

8 ounces shallots, sliced (about 2 cups)

10-15 chestnut mushrooms, sliced thinly

4 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 750-ml bottle Pinot Noir or other dry red wine (see picture for my choice in cheap-o cooking wine) 

1 14-ounce can low-salt chicken broth

1 14-ounce can beef broth

2 fresh thyme sprigs

1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

1 Turkish bay leaf

1 tablespoon butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon flour


Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat.

Add shallots and mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 12 minutes.  

Sprinkle sugar over; sauté until mixture is deep brown, about 4 minutes longer. 

Add vinegar; stir until liquid evaporates, about 1 minute. 

Add wine; boil until reduced by half, about 20 minutes. 

Add both broths, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaf; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer uncovered 35 minutes to blend flavors, stirring occasionally. 

Strain sauce through a fine mesh strainer. (If you want a "pure" sauce, discard the solids at this point. I wanted the richness of the mushrooms and shallots with my polenta so I saved them to be added in at the end.)

Mix butter and flour in small bowl. 

Bring sauce to simmer over medium-high heat; gradually whisk in flour mixture. 

Cook until sauce is reduced to 1 1/4 cups, about 5 minutes. You can mix in the reserved solids if you want at this point.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

English Carrot Cake

I know what you must be thinking. English carrot cake? What on earth could be the difference between English carrot cake and American carrot cake?

Well, good thing you asked.

I enjoy following the Guardian series "How to cook the perfect..." because I think it's an excellent idea. Everyone has their version of classic recipes, but rarely are these variations compared and contrasted.

Is pasta or rice better in minestrone soup? Are tomatoes essential in it?
How about the perfect yorkshire puddings? Should they be massive pillowy things or small dainty puffs?

These variations are probably fought over in kitchens throughout the world, but the Guardian sets their writers to compare and contrast each, pulling out the best from each recipe they find, producing essentially the "best" of a particular well-known recipe.

And, for the most part, they've come up with some excellent "best of" recipes in the past (see my version of a blissfully tomato-free minestrone).

But obviously any "best of" recipe will ultimately rest with the chef making it. And here is where the carrot cake comes in.

I have had many carrot cakes in my time, most of them in the US. They can be wonderfully dense, moist things, full of carrot flavor and rich in nuts and raisins. Add some classic cream cheese frosting, and carrot cake can do wonders.

So I was eager to try the Guardian's version, particularly as, thanks to our weekly veg box, we are literally up to our ears in carrots. But as I read through the post, I became immediately suspicious. Not only was the tradition cream cheese frosting summarily rejected, but the amount of carrots in the cake seemed suspiciously low. Felicity Clark, the chef behind the recipe, seemed more concerned about the guilt factor associated with the carrot cake than making the cake...well, a cake (as she says: "Carrots aren't the only good thing in this cake – it's often laden with fruit and nuts too, in the manner of a sugar-laden granola bar hoping to pass muster as a health food").

Honey, you're making a cake. Not health food. Get over it.

She was also somehow insistent on making the cake with the bizarre "sandwich tins" so popular in the UK. Now, I have nothing against the classic Victoria sponge or any layered cake. But if you're going to layer a cake, give us enough frosting to make the layers worthwhile!! As you can see from the picture, there is little "extra" frosting to go around. And that, kids, is from doubling the original quantities posted on the website. Come on, Felicity, live a little. Even though she insisted that cream cheese frosting wasn't "dignified" enough for the cake (and too rich), her version of the frosting was just cream cheese and brown sugar. Ok, it was fine. But nothing like the glories of carrot cakes in the past. It seemed too guilty as a frosting, silently criticizing itself for being too fatty and apologizing that it was even there at all.
Look, if you're going to go with cake frosting, you're going to have to commit to it. Don't apologize.

This all seems to be a woefully long rant about the evils of the Guardian's carrot cake. Which may not seem entirely fair. The cake was perfectly edible (soaking the raisins in rum beforehand helped, a trick I used from "naughty Nigella" as Felicity puts it), yet not nearly "carrot-y" enough to satisfy my American palate. Ah well. Live and learn.

Makes: 1 cake


150g butter, melted, plus extra for greasing
150g soft light brown sugar
3 free-range eggs
200g self-raising wholemeal flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp grated nutmeg
Zest of 1 orange
100g sultanas or raisins, soaked in rum for at least 10 minutes
200g carrots, peeled and grated
100g pecans, toasted and roughly chopped, plus extra to decorate

For the icing:
200g full-fat cream cheese
75g light brown soft sugar
Zest of ½ lemon and a squeeze of juice


Preheat the oven to 180C and grease and line the bases of 2 x 18cm sandwich tins.

Put the melted butter, sugar and eggs into a large mixing bowl and whisk well (what she actually means here is use an electric beater. Otherwise, you'll be there all day) until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the mixture has almost doubled in volume.

Sift together the flour, bicarb, salt and spices and then fold very gently into the liquid mixture, being careful to knock as little air out as possible. Fold in the remaining ingredients and divide between the tins. Bake for about 30 minutes until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tins.

Meanwhile, beat together the icing ingredients and refrigerate. When the cakes are cool enough to ice, remove from the tins, top one with half the icing, and then the other cake. Ice the top, and decorate with the remaining pecans.

Beat that sucker.

Five-Hour French Onion Soup

Good soups are an investment. If you want quality, if you want unctuousness, you have to be patient.

Very patient.

5-hours patient.

Now, patience is rarely a strong point of mine. If eating alone, I don't want preparations to take any longer than 15 minutes. Maximum.

But when cooking for others (and finding myself with five hours to spare, thanks to the glories of post-term freedom), time has no meaning. The longer something takes, the better.

So when I found a recipe for french onion soup that promised 5 magical hours of cooking time, I was sold.

And, let me assure you, this soup is worth it.

Most of the preparation comes from making the oxtail stock (itself a 3-hour affair), but I cannot emphasize enough that it is worth it. There is a richness to oxtails that just dissolves into liquid form after the 2 hour mark. Combine that with your base standards of stock-making (carrots, bay leaves, thyme, etc.), you have something that is almost spiritual in taste.

When I wanted to eat *just* the stock, I knew I made the right decision.

Couple that with a couple hours of melted caramelized onions, mixed with port? Add bread AND cheese on top of it?

Heaven. Soupy heaven.

Serves: 6


1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 pounds oxtail or beef shoulder, cut into 1- or 2-inch pieces


8 medium onions
My port of choice. Tesco's finest.

4 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

4 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 bay leaves

4 thyme sprigs

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

Black pepper

1 cup port wine (see picture)

Lemon juice, to taste, optional

6 ounces baguette loaf, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

2 garlic cloves, halved

8 ounces Gruyère cheese

Some fine lookin' oxtails

1. Heat the oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over high heat. Add the oxtail (or beef shoulder) in a single layer (work in batches, if necessary to avoid crowding the pan), and sear until the undersides are brown (do not turn). Season generously with salt and transfer to a plate.

2. Coarsely chop two of the onions; add to the pot, along with the celery, carrots, bay leaves and thyme. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft and beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Return the beef to the pot. Pour in 8 cups water. Simmer mixture gently until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

3. Transfer beef to a bowl to cool for another use (see my entry on Polenta with Oxtails and Red Wine Sauce). Strain liquid into a bowl over a fine-mesh sieve; press gently on the solids with the back of a spatula to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the solids; you should have about 8 cups broth (add water if necessary to equal 8 cups).

4. Halve the remaining 6 onions through the root end, then peel and thinly slice them lengthwise. Melt the butter in the bottom of the Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, tossing occasionally, until deep golden-brown and caramelized, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and black pepper. Pour in the port and cook, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Pour in the broth and simmer mixture over low heat for 30 minutes. Season with salt and lemon juice, if desired. (For a smaller group, you could refrigerate some of the soup and reheat it later.)

The glorious gooey onions after 45 minutes.

5. While the broth simmers, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the bread slices on a baking sheet and toast until golden, about 12 minutes. Rub the garlic halves over the surface of the bread.

6. Heat the broiler and arrange a rack 4 to 6 inches from the flame. Using a cheese slicer, thinly slice 3 ounces of Gruyère. Coarsely grate the remaining cheese. Float the broiled bread over the surface of the hot soup. Layer the cheese slices over the bread; scatter the grated cheese over it. Transfer the Dutch oven to the oven and broil until cheese is golden and bubbling, 3 to 5 minutes (watch to see that it does not burn).

7. To serve, use kitchen shears or scissors to cut the bread and cheese into portions. Ladle soup, bread and cheese into individual bowls.

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