The scents of a season

(Quince brown butter cake)

Two months into Autumn and I’m finally getting a sense of the season we’re in. Chestnuts are in the shops, along with fuzzy yellow quinces, mandarins and gorgeous ripe persimmons. It strikes me that chestnuts and quinces in particular are two things that require a bit of work before they bridge that gap between why-bother and food-nirvana. I couldn’t resist combining the two in a dessert for friends recently, and know just how laborious it is to cook with them.

Prior to being taught more about quinces, I’d only ever thought of them as the sugary rubbery stuff usually served with cheese. Now every year, I cook them slowly in a not overly sugary syrup, and store them in jars, to be folded into steamed puddings, ice-cream or baked as tarts. When the last bit of cooked fruit has been scooped from the jar, the remaining liquid is then used to soak a sponge, make a custard (Eliza Acton’s recipe for quince custard uses the poaching liquid, egg yolks and not much else. No dairy!) or even reduced to glaze a ham. If you don’t have the patience or the dessert gene, try the lamb and quince tagine from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Fruit instead. The fragrant fruit makes such a statement even in that simple savoury dish.

Today, I really wanted cake, so I made one based on a recipe by Claudia Fleming in her book, The Last Course. This cake is somewhat like an over-sized financier, and has a tight crumb with a deep caramel-like flavour of brown butter. You could serve it with cream or ice-cream, but really I think it’s perfect with just a simple cup of tea.

Quince brown butter cake :

115g butter, browned, strained and kept warm
120g icing sugar
130g buckwheat flour
pinch of sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground long pepper (if you don’t have this, use a spice of your choice)
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
150g egg whites
finely grated zest of 1 mandarin
1 large slow-cooked quince, sliced

Grease and line the base of a 7.5″ round pie tin. (see note below)
Preheat the oven to 190’C.

Combine the icing sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, spices and zest in a bowl. Whisk in the eggs whites thoroughly, then gradually whisk in the warm brown butter. Pour the mix into the prepared tin. Top with slices of quince. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean. Once cooked, allow to cool on a wire rack. Brush the cake with some of the quince cooking liquid, and just before serving, dust the top with a little icing sugar.

[To cook quinces : Wash and peel the quinces, cut in half and place them into a pot with a solution of 3 water : 1 sugar. Add sliced lemon, 1 cinnamon stick, a few crushed cardamom pods, and a split vanilla bean if you wish, and bring to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat down, place a cartouche (circle of baking paper) over the quinces and continue to cook on very low heat for several hours until the fruit is completely cooked through and have turned a deep ruby colour.]

[Note about baking tin : I used an unusual sized tin for this cake. You can use a larger one or bake individual cakes, and adjust the baking time accordingly.]

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The Bread Course

(Brown butter brioche)

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been very busy juggling work and planning for a special dinner that finally took place on Monday 27th February.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Toys Collective, it comprises a group of young chefs who originally banded together to promote the new wave of industry peers by means of thematic dinners thrown throughout the year.

When invited to participate in their latest dinner, I initially declined. Having an all-female themed event seemed a bit too gimmicky. Personally, I’ve never felt the need to make any distinction between males and females in commercial kitchens. There is nothing a guy can do in a kitchen that a girl can’t and gender has never been an issue in any place I’ve worked. (This of course doesn’t answer the big question people always ask about why there are so few well known female chefs in our industry. I don’t pretend to know the reason for that, but I have noticed one thing based on people I’ve had the opportunity to work with. Women chefs who succeed do so because they cook not so much with ego but with great inner strength. Whether that means you need a bigger ego to be noticed, or to surpass greatness, I don’t know.)

Mind you I’m also one of those crazies who thinks girls-only “Kitchen Teas” and baby showers are a bit archaic. Which probably explains why I hardly ever get invited to any. So I said no to the dinner. But the line up of those who had already signed on included some people I really wanted to work with, so I ended up saying yes.

And it was a heck of a ride.

Along the way, I also learned a lot about myself. The other pastry girls will deny this now, but once Stockholm Syndrome sets in, I know they’ll miss the many emails I tortured them with during our planning stage. Of course everyone else cares about menu wording, the right kind of mason jar, weight of the cheese course, style of cutlery and exact width of paper being laid on the tables. Of course they do.

The bread which formed part of the first course was developed by Julie. It was a light brioche style pull-apart loaf, that fitted in with the ‘shared table’ brief we were given. Here I’ve adapted the recipe to suit my preferences. One of my personal policies is to always use brown butter where possible. The savoury yeast flakes are completely optional. They boost the umami flavour of the loaf, but you can easily leave them out altogether, or substitute with a spice or some grated cheese. This bread was served alongside bone marrow butter set into bone marrow, crispy pigs heads, a lobster consomme and an edible garden of vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Pull-apart brown butter brioche :
(based on a recipe by Julie Niland)

10g dried yeast
240g skim milk, at room temperature
60g water, at room temperature

570g plain flour
10g sea salt
85g rapadura sugar
2 eggs
150g unsalted butter, diced and at room temperature

for assembly :
4 tablespoons browned butter, melted
2-3 tablespoons savoury yeast flakes (found in health food stores; also known as nutritional yeast flakes)

Combine the yeast with the milk and water in a bowl. Leave aside for 5 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached, add the flour, salt and sugar, followed by the yeast mixture and the eggs. Knead until the dough is smooth, then gradually incorporate the diced butter, kneading well between each addition. Once all the butter has been incorporated, stop the mixer, remove the dough and place it in a large, greased bowl. Cover with cling film and chill overnight.

The next day, ease the dough out of the bowl. Dust the bench top lightly with flour and roll the dough out into a long rectangle about 1cm thick. Brush the dough with browned butter and sprinkle with the yeast flakes. Cut the dough into thirds lengthways. Stack the strips of dough together. Cut down the stacked dough to create smaller stacks of dough that are roughly 3/4 the height of a 9 1/2 inch x 5 1/2 inch loaf tin. There’s a good pictorial explanation of how to create this pull-apart effect here. Arrange the small stacks in the greased tin. Cover loosely with cling film and allow to prove until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 195’C. Brush the top of the loaf with egg wash and bake for 15 minutes, then for a further 15 minutes at 175’C.

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Treat yourself : Brown butter crispy rice treats

(Brown butter-crispy rice treats)

Brown butter. Two words which strike fear in the minds and on the waistlines of much slimmer women.

For me, it is a siren call, greater than chocolate or even vanilla-bean-anything. The moment I see it listed in a recipe, I have to make it. And it almost nearly never disappoints.

So it is with this recipe. It takes not quite five ingredients and barely five minutes to put together. Of course, you can add a little more love by making your own marshmallows, but sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to manufacture your own highly processed food. Besides, why not enjoy everything in moderation, with occasional immodest amounts of..

Brown butter – crispy rice treats :
(based on a recipe from Flour by Joanne Chang)

1 cup/2 sticks/228g unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
280g marshmallows
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
9 cups/240g crispy rice cereal

Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, coat it with nonstick cooking spray or line it with parchment paper.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. As the butter melts, use the tip of a knife to scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean directly into the butter.

Once the butter has melted, it will start to bubble and crackle. As soon as the bubbling subsides, after about 5 minutes, the butter will be fully browned. Add the marshmallows and salt and stir constantly over low heat until the marshmallows are completely melted and the vanilla seeds are evenly distributed. [Note : I deviated from the recipe here, straining the butter into a new pan to get rid of the solids, before adding the marshmallows]

Remove the pan from the heat, add the cereal, and mix well with a wooden spoon to coat evenly. Turn the mixture into the prepared pan and pat into an even layer. Let cool for about 1 hour, or to room temperature, then cut into 12 pieces.

These treats can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

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