Rachel Bennett

Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

A soup for Every Season: Honeyed Cream of Carrot and Chili

In Food on November 30, 2010 at 21:09

I awoke this morning and began the lackluster routine of rousing myself from the depths. Today however, I flung open the curtains to a swirling world of white, the staid pattern of roofs, brick, and twisting gray road sparkling with a shifting veil of flakes. The first snow of winter never ceases to afflict me with a childlike giddiness. I gasped and danced a disheveled jig by the window.

Perhaps this reaction is caused by happy memories of snow days, when you woke to the sound of the phone ringing in the shrouded, dawning light. You scarcely dared guess the reason. Tiptoeing to the window you offered up a silent prayer and parted the curtains. There, a glistening blanket greeted you, softening the contours of buildings and fences, beckoning, untrammeled and pristine with possibility.

Sadly, the snow this morning in London was not sticking to the ground, but it was enough for me that the air was soft and with unhurried flakes. After I’d exhausted the pleasures of my jig, I proceeded with the morning, my mind wandering however, to what I wanted to eat in honor of the snow. Hot Chocolate was a given, but I also required real nourishment, something to complement the weather, to bolster my body against the glacial air. The fridge obligingly provided an answer. Carrots, fresh ginger, a generous helping of red chilies, a spoonful of honey and a clementine for good measure—I had a heap of flavors ideal for simmering into a warming winter soup.

For this recipe, I heartily encourage experimentation and substitution. This is generally my own philosophy to soup as it’s an ideal realm for creative cooking; you can add or subtract most elements to suit your taste and generally produce something wholly satisfying. And if you’re in the mood for some real heat, as I was, add extra chili and ginger for an even more invigorating elixir.

olive oil
1/2 onion
bunch of carrots

a few potatoes
a knob of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
2 chili peppers
1 clementine
sprinkle of thyme
squeeze of lemon
1 tablespoon honey

chicken or vegetable stock to cover (about a pint)
Half and half (single cream) to finish

Place a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add a slosh of olive oil and while this is heating, roughly chop the onions, carrots, potatoes and ginger, mince the garlic and chilies, and peel the clementine. Add all these to the oil, sprinkle on the thyme, stir and cover with stock. Bring to boil, then lower heat, cover, and simmer until veggies are tender, about 20 minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon, spoon of honey, and whiz in a processor. Finish with salt, pepper, and cream to taste.

Beneath the Icing

In Food on November 28, 2010 at 11:11

Of all the desserts dreamed up throughout the ages by a million cooks, the continuing preeminence of cake is baffling. From weddings, graduations and birthdays to Valentine’s day, Easter and Christmas, cakes—specifically classic sponge cakes layered with a flavored cream and coated with frosting—are an edible representation of so much that is special and celebratory in life.

Yet they are almost always the least satisfying of desserts. Give me a steaming slice of apple pie, a luscious scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a devilish orb of truffle over a wedge of cake any day. And although my knees might not wobble over a mediocre lemon tart, I generally succumb to temptation no matter the quality of the product. But when it comes to cake my resolve doesn’t falter; I can eye the most glamorous creation without a flicker of enthusiasm rustling my taste buds, because I have learned from a litany of disappointing experiences that a cake’s beauty is surface deep—they’re all image and no substance. Once, when I was more impressionable, I might have been seduced by the glitz of silken frosting—or by a certain Hungarian boy with a devilish smile and the body of a particularly athletic Greek god—but I soon learned my lesson. Consequently, I now approach all seemingly angelic cakes and cherubic faces with equal skepticism.

Even as a kid I remember a feeling a pang of disenchantment over many a birthday cake. First it arrives with promising fanfare—is there any other dessert that is regularly crowned with candles and marched to the table to a vigorous tune? Then it is reverently sliced. Anticipation grows as you pass around the wedges with each layer intriguingly revealed like the geological strata of a canyon wall. The individual levels promise a delectable combination of cream and crumb, sweet and tang, smooth and crunch. And then there is the proverbial icing, so shiny and promising you ache dip a finger into its glossiness, just to test. Finally everyone has a slice and you attack with abandon, hefting a sizable segment onto your fork and delivering it to your taste buds. Alas, disillusionment is immediate, as you discover that the crumb is dry, the cream cloying, and the flavors bland.  A few experiences like this and you soon learn to shun cakes in favor of the less flashy virtues of a pie, souffle, or crumble.

However, there are certain exceptions to this rule, and over time I’ve come across a handful of cakes that deliver on the promise of a seductive exterior. They are few and far between, so when I find one it haunts me for ages. One such specimen was a cake I made several years ago for Christmas. I came across it in the October 2008 edition of Fine Cooking, an intriguing recipe for a “cinnamon caramel ganache layer cake.” It consisted of a cinnamon infused caramel chocolate filling, bittersweet chocolate sponge, and glossy ganache icing. . . I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and the result was well worth my faith. The sponge was delicate yet resonant with chocolate, the filling was warm and sweet with cinnamon, and the ganache had a refreshing bitter edge to it, balancing perfectly with the mellifluous layers beneath.

Yesterday I made this cake for a second time, so I can safely say that the first success wasn’t a fluke. It was a good as I’d remembered and well worth the slightly laborious preparation. I wouldn’t say this cake falls in the category of something you can simply whip up, in fact you really need to dedicate a whole afternoon to the endeavor, but it makes an utterly magnificent conclusion to any celebration.

Cinnamon-Caramel-Ganache Layer Cake – Fine Cooking Recipes, Techniques and Tips

In Food on November 28, 2010 at 11:03

Cinnamon-Caramel-Ganache Layer Cake – Fine Cooking Recipes, Techniques and Tips.

Thanksgiving Blues

In Food on November 25, 2010 at 23:11

It is truly strange that Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Think about it: a day dedicated to one momentous meal, weeks of planning, hours of laborious cooking, and further hours of steady eating, drinking, and carousing. Surely such a culinary orgy is more appropriate to our gastronomically inclined neighbors across the pond. How about the Italians for instance? I can just picture them embracing the idea, substituting pasta for mashed potatoes and tiramisu for pumpkin pie while retaining the spirit of extravagant enjoyment. Or the French, who would perhaps sweep away our cranberry sauce and stuff our turkeys with chestnuts. Yet neither of these foodie nations has any festival comparable to the utterly hedonistic delight that is Thanksgiving in America.

And my brother and I agree: it is the best of holidays, really the only American celebration that counts. There is none of the agonizing over presents, familiar duties, or manufactured jollity that typify Christmas, and non of the mildly uncomfortable flag waving that accompanies the 4th of July. And besides a fairly gentle undercurrent of advertisements for cranberry sauce and turkeys, the usual bombardment from retailers is absent. Perhaps some ambitious business tried to turn Thanksgiving into a hallmark holiday at some point, but if so it clearly didn’t work. Instead the day has remained magnificently single-minded. It is, quite simply, all about grub.

However, I can’t claim coolly objective speculation this Thanksgiving evening, as I’m in a sad state of exile with all the rosy hued nostalgia that brings. Instead of occupying my rightful position—at the culinary helm, sweating in an unladylike fashion and bellowing orders at my long-suffering kitchen minions—I am tucked away in a flat in London, glumly sipping sherry. It is no substitute, I assure you. But I have one secret palliative to help me through the anguish of wistful memories and the prospect of a cheerless, empty kitchen, one glowing light at the end of the tunnel of gastronomic wilderness: I have pie in the oven.

Trudging through the grey streets of London this morning, with an equally monotonous sky overhead and a caustic chill to the air, I became convinced that I would dissolve into despair if I did not at least prepare something—some iconic edible—to commemorate the occasion. A turkey wasn’t feasible, so I decided to go for dessert, something sweet to sooth the ache. And if you’re fixing just one dessert on Thanksgiving, there’s only one option: you bake a pumpkin pie.

No messing about with posh French pastry nonsense. Instead, opt for a simple all-butter crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces butter, well chilled
3-5 tablespoons cold water

Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a cheese grater, grate the chilled butter into the flour and rub quickly between fingers until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. (Work as quickly as possible to avoid warming the butter. It’s those little pieces of cold fat that help create a flaky pastry.) Add enough water to bind mixture into a rough ball. Press the ball down on a floured counter and roll out one inch bigger than your tart pan. Line the pan with the dough, folding over the edges and pressing into a shapely border if you’re the aesthetically sensitive sort. Place the lined pan in the freezer while you pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C and mix the filling.

15 ounces fresh or canned pumpkin puree.
2 large eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of ground nutmeg
pinch of ground cloves

Beat the eggs together, then add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Pour the filling into the shell and bake for about 45 minutes of until risen and browned. Allow to cool a little and serve with vanilla ice cream, creme fraiche, or whipped cream.

Take one slice, as often as needed, till the Thanksgiving blues have dissipated. Then, as tradition dictates, eat another slice for tomorrow’s breakfast to complete the cure.

The Confessional

In Food on November 22, 2010 at 23:56

“Like all young men I set out to be a genius, but mercifully laughter intervened.”
– Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet

Dionysus was certainly not a Catholic. He took far too much pleasure in wine, food, dance, sex, and, well, pleasure itself. Besides, if we’re going to get devilish about the details, he swaggered into the human imagination long before Catholicism was even a whisper of a thought. Nevertheless, much good writing begins with a confession so I’m merely stealing from the greats when I enter that dark metaphorical box.

My particular disclosure will not come as a surprise to those of my dear readers who’ve had the faith and fortitude to follow me from blog to blog. First there was Fifty-Two Feasts, with the ambitious goal to prepare, host, and enjoy fifty-two meals over the course of fifty-two weeks. It was an absorbing endeavor and one that occupied my energies during an otherwise desultory, drifting sort of year. Yet the mental and material cost concocting elaborate meals for friends, relatives, and anyone else who could be lured to the table, eventually took its toll and I regretfully waved farewell to that undertaking.

Then came my evangelical phase in the form of a blog called Grub & Grist: the art of a working kitchen. Here I worked myself into a frenzy of missionary zeal, anxious to spread the gospel of do-it-yourself cookery. The aim was to overwhelm my readers with the joys of homemade sourdoughs, pickles, and chutneys, persuading them to forage berries, brew beer, and generally break the shackles of our cosseted lives and corporate dependence. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account the limitations of venturing back to the woods while living in the heart of London. The time and equipment it takes to properly preserve food, skin rabbits, and make wine are considerable. And to be honest, the whole business started to feel a bit silly, like playing with dolls when you’ve begun to outgrow the fantasy.

That is not to suggest that I’ve stopped feasting or baking bread, in fact I am dedicated to both. But I no longer host meals like a sort of culinary fascist administering a regimen of banquets to her bloated victims. And although I enjoy preserving fruit and baking pork pies, I no longer have illusions about these efforts. They are amusing hobbies. But frequently they are also a major, time-consuming pain in the ass—entertainment for eccentric graduate students.

Yet there is a thread knitting these dead ends together—a resilient, golden thread—and that is an enduring love of food. And it is this essential impetus that brings me back to the beginning, to a simpler blog with a simpler goal. Instead of a culinary marathon or reenactments of an 18th century farmhouse, I’m going back to basics: Lunch with Dionysus is a blog about food. It is a celebration of taste and pleasure, cooking and eating, feasts and friends. Like Dionysus himself, it is a dichotomous creature—at once wild and cultivated, bitter and sweet, sober and silly—yet always dedicated to the good, delicious life.