Monthly Archives: April 2011

Crème Brûlée II

Have tweaked my notes on crème brûlée.

They puffed up after 45 mins at 140ºC, were promptly rescued (as soon as I could get the foccaccia dough I was kneading off my hands!) and served with no ill effect. (Although not having a test serving, I had to dish them up with fingers crossed that they hadn’t curdled.)

Still a slightly stressful pudding. Recommend you prepare one or two more than required, so you can sample in advance. That could just be my greed talking.



A few weeks ago M vented his not inconsiderable spleen upon Amazon at a certain well-known book on baking – deriding its pretensions and poor writing. Worse still, he called into question the recipes themselves. Indignant responses followed almost immediately from other readers. Did M not realise how well-regarded The Author was? Did M not know that The Book had inspired countless happy droves to dizzying new heights of Culinary Nirvana? To ratchet things up a notch, within hours, The Author himself responded; quite stung, it seems. (Amusingly, the first indignant reader comment did not arrive until 15 minutes after The Author* posted a link to the review on Twitter. Vanity surfing much?)

So, has M just been a mean bitch** and a shameless troll? Or is the Emperor in a slight state of undress?

Let’s take a look at The Book. It is truly a handsome beast: large format, hardback, stitched in signatures of reassuringly heavy paper. The graphic design is good, and the text eloquent and passionate. And the photography? Glorious: full page photos that just have you salivating. I imagine this simply flew off the shelves the Christmas it was published, eliciting many an “ooh!” and “ah!” from the casual reader. Could one possibly bear to take such a beautiful specimen of the bookbinder’s art into the kitchen where it might – perish the thought – become soiled with use? No, its purpose is to adorn the coffee table. (See the hysterical for ideas.)

Although the Amazon debacle is amusing, I’m interested in the wider world of Gastroporn. Why does it exist? Does it benefit mankind?

Like proper pornography – if such a thing can ever be considered proper – we have a small group of experts doing something the rest of us find awkward and just a bit embarrassing. Just like porn, the buzz amongst reviewers is triggered by the caress of novelty against a jaded palate. At their worst, books and television like this put people off actually getting mucky in the kitchen, and instead buy more merchandise or visit the authors’ restaurants.

Now, I have been told that “high end chefs don’t write how-to-cook books”, and accept that if the author has a Michelin star or two, he’s not obliged to explain how to fillet a fish or knead dough. Sometimes I see recipes from these people, and think, “that might be fun to cook”, and then look at the recipe closer, and realise there’s not enough information on the page for me to recreate it. This necessitates spending a lot of time cross referencing other sources in an act of gastronomic reverse engineering. (Some of the recipes on this site are here as a result of that work.)

Now I do understand – and almost forgive – the need to get a book published for a particular marketing deadline can mean that testing, and in some cases proof-reading, fall by the wayside. Perhaps the book needs to be churned out quickly lest the author fade in the public’s imagination. Case in point is the lovely Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy, which could have been very good, but ends up a promotional vehicle, with more photos of Lorraine than cookery. (I hope Edd Kimber’s forthcoming book isn’t a rush job.)

On the other hand, we don’t want cookbooks that are simply dry technical manuals, although see the excellent handbooks for the City & Guilds diplomas if you do. (You won’t find these at Waterstone’s; try Foyle’s or Nisbet’s.) Writing should be more than mere documentation. Nigel’s saucy prose eggs the reader on, and Nigella practically flirts one into the donning the apron. Who can not read Pomiane’s recipe for chocolate mousse without smiling, and making a note to pick up some eggs, cream and chocolate on the way home? Ditto photography. A few action shots of the tricky steps (difficult, I know, when you’re cursing) and a shot of the finished product are both useful and likely to spur us into action.

My objection to gastroporn is when it masquerades as a collection of recipes. You’ll notice that a bookshop does not put The New Joy of Sex on the same shelf as The Story of O. I propose gastroporn and cookbooks be likewise separated.

*One notes that The Author tweets with a vigour that surpasses even Stephen Fry. One also notes a few of the five star Amazon reviews are good professional copy but the only review each of these users has ever contributed. Entirely plausible The Author is perfectly sane and reasonable, but is being represented by some vile astroturfing PR firm.

**The intemperate nature of the review may be connected to a failure in the kitchen. We’ve all been there.

Gaggia Classic

Maybe you, Dear Reader, have transcended your base desires, and live an ascetic and wholesome exsistence, far from the turmoil of life in a big city. Then again, if you’re reading this site, probably not, so you’ll understand when I say I can’t live without a coffee machine. You’ll also understand my horror* as the Krups (late 90s model) started making steadily less satisfying coffee, and worse, did not respond to descaling and new gaskets.

Time to replace the dear old beast.

The new machine is a Gaggia Classic.

It is a strange, temperamental monster, but ultimately rather rewarding. Here are some notes on how it works for me, offered, as usual, in the hope that you  find them useful.

The outside is sexy. Not in a dramatic way, like a Pavoni, but solid and steely, in the way moden plastic kitchen gadgets aren’t; it’s heavy, too. Easy to clean as well. (Two quite innocuous screws will take the top off, exposing all the working parts, which themselves look like they could be unscrewed and individually replaced. Definitely not modern manufacturing techniques. Don’t try this unless you’ve disconnected the machine from the power supply.)

The water tank inside is theoretically removable, but quite a faff to do so, fortunately it’s filled from a funnel that’s opened by a hatch in the top of the machine. Two silicone hoses are used to suck the water up into the pump. It would be better if one could remove the tank more easily, as the temptation is to just keep filling it from the top, and letting lifeforms grow in the tank. Mind you, the easily removable tank in the Krups had a funny valve at the bottom, and if you didn’t put it in firmly, the machine gently leaked the entire contents!

There’s the usual drip tray with a metal grille, and then a piece of plastic under that, which warps when it cops too much hot water, causing the grille to rise up amusingly. So far no mess or accidents.

The brewing head comes with a one shot and a double shot filter, which need to be levered out with a butter knife. There’s a little plastic pin that sits underneath that – a new innovation apparently – which I’m sure is going to vanish down the drain at some point. The brewing head doesn’t eject the spent grounds, nor will a light tap do the trick, so you will need running water and a spoon handle to dislodge.

The thing heats up rapidly, with the light counter-intuitively going on when it’s ready. A second switch increases the heat for steaming the milk, but more about that in a moment. A third switch – not logical at all! – gets the pump going to deliver the espresso itself.

The espresso? Despite all my moaning, it’s damned fine. Smooth, velvety, and a layer of crema so thick that the sugar floats on top. Brings back happy memories of my first proper espresso in Milan.

The arrangements for steaming milk are not as convenient as perhaps they should be. There’s the usual modern turbo frothing attachment, a multi channeled plastic nozzle that goes on the end of the metal arm, so you get hot milk, a layer of useful dense froth, and then a useless layer of cold milk meringue on top. The steaming arm is too short to use without the attachment, although I recall reading that one can unbolt the entire assembly and use a Rancillo part instead. That said, it’s no huge drama, but you do need a spoon to hold back the meringue when you tip the milk onto your coffee.

There’s a switch to put it into steaming mode. This requires a higher temperature, and if you can see your electricity meter from the kitchen, you’ll see the doodah start to whir ’round like crazy, as though all available dilithium is being channeled to the warp core. One side effect is that you need to make your espresso first, as the machine will be too hot after steaming, and the coffee will have a nasty burnt taste, unless you wait about five minutes for it to cool down.

Summary: Perfect espresso, but a bit of a dramarama for steamed milk.

Crèma! Crè-ma-ma-ah!

Gaggia! Ooh la la-ah!

*and maybe also the tiny thought at the time that, “if the worst thing in my life right now is a broken down coffee machine, then I am profoundly grateful for everything else.”

Soda Bread

A fast bread. If you’re organised, you can be tucking into this 45 minutes after you start mixing the dough. Here’s what you need:

  • 250g plain white flour (not “strong” or “breadmaking” flour: soda bread has its origins in areas where the flour had a low gluten content)
  • 90mL milk
  • 90mL water
  • 1½ tsp cream of tartar
  • ¾ tsp bicarb of soda
  • 5g salt

Mix thoroughly, and then knead briefly on generously floured surface. Shape into a ball, and then squish it flat, no more than 2 inches thick.

Use a blunt knife to indent a cross on the top, almost all the way to the bottom.

Into a preheated oven at 200ºC – check after 20 mins, might need 25 – usual hollow drum like effect when rapped on the bottom. Cool for 10 minutes.

The results always put me in mind of a giant scone. Apply butter, jam, marmalade or honey. And a gallon of Tea.

Feel free to vary the consituents of the liquid. Pop in an egg and/or some melted butter if you’re feeling lush. A scattering of raisins won’t hurt, nor will a squirt of honey, or a sprinkling of spices.

For a more traditional version, you can use buttermilk. This is a little more acidic, so you’ll need less cream of tartar.

Use 2tsp baking powder if you’ve not got soda and tartar in separate pots.