Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

a mind wanders

The taxi driver’s phone rings. He doesn’t answer, choosing instead to concentrate on driving me to my destination. At least, I assume that is how he thinks. Perhaps, though, he just doesn’t want to answer the call, it is someone he doesn’t want to speak to. I cannot tell. I wonder who it might be. I know nothing of his friends, of his family. What is his life like? How is it different from mine? Does he have children? Was he born here? Does he live with a wife, a mother? It seems absurd; we are sitting just a few feet apart and yet the courses of our lives are almost entirely separate. But for the few minutes of this journey, we stand apart completely. And even these few minutes are governed by silence, not uncomfortable, but part of the form. We might make conversation, of course, but it seems that neither of use would take any great pleasure in it. A transaction, a game in which we are not fully present as people. And a game in which I have the upper hand. Throughout the ages, the customer exploits the artisan. How long have there been taxi drivers? A hundred and fifty years maybe. And in another twenty, perhaps there will be no more. Perhaps they will be replaced by robots, or perhaps society will fall apart, and there will be no cars, no easy journeys. We are playing a game located in a specific place in history. A particular set of economic conditions that mean I sit in silence in the back of a car, part of a tradition that will soon pass away. This is how people of a certain class move from one place to another in my lifetime, in his lifetime, at this point in the story of humanity. Moving from place to place because our world is articulated, broken apart by function. To do this we must be there. So we travel, we move about, we traipse from place to place. And time, too, is articulated: if we want to do this we must do it then. And there is a multitude of thens, a multitude of journeys, taxi drivers for a century carrying me there to do this because it is then. And before that there are other places, other journeys, because that is how the universe is built. Time is what stops everything from happening at once, as Einstein said; and space, I suppose, stops everything from being in the same place. Space makes individuals possible, means that you are not me, that I am not the taxi driver. Space necessitates motion, and motion only makes sense if there is space. Motion, location, neither comprehensible without the other. Here is not there because I have to move from here to get there; I can move to there because there is not here. Two complementary ideas, each dependent on the other for meaning. Or is there some more fundamental thought, some concept that might underpin them both, explaining them, and perhaps illuminating something more profound?

The phone stops ringing.

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The Age of the Troll

Flame war (n): a lengthy exchange of angry or abusive messages between users of an online forum or other discussion area.

Troll (n): One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument

Iain Duncan Smith has done Remainers a huge favour with these remarks reported in the Express. It’s a favour because it enables articles like this one. IDS, we are to believe, is an idiot, a man fundamentally misinformed and so caught up in Europhobic zealotry that he is willing to tear up the constitution if it gets him what he wants, a man with no respect for the country’s traditions, a man who cannot be trusted. By implication, the whole Leave camp is similarly ignorant, similarly ill-informed, similarly driven by emotion rather than reason. We woz right all along: Brexit was a mistake, a deception, a moment of madness, and must be stopped.

And we are again a step further away from building consensus, from having a rational exchange of views and concerns, from healing the division in the country and pulling together the best of our nature and abilities to find a way forwards.

The picture that has emerged since the referendum is that Leave voters (and I’m sure the same is true of Remain, although I don’t know of any evidence) had much more nuanced, reasonable and well-informed opinions than the Leave campaign itself. People were motivated by very reasonable concerns and took time to inform themselves about the issue. The Leave campaign, for example, spoke of extra money for the NHS; this didn’t fool Remain voters – but it didn’t really fool Leave voters either.

Yet it isn’t the reasonable case for Leave, the case that had decent, rational, well-informed people across the country convinced, that Remainers heard. I’m pretty sure that the converse is also true; the appellation “Project Fear” doesn’t attach to my reasons for voting Remain, but might be an apt description of the way the Remain campaign was heard in the Leave camp. Instead, we heard a shifting chimera of misinformation and jingoism which hardly amounted to an argument, let alone one worth answering.

This latest spat over IDS is more of the same.

IDS could, of course, have kept his mouth shut. But equally, the Express had no particular journalistic duty to report his remarks. He isn’t a cabinet minister. He has no role in the Brexit process and presumably no particular influence in it. He is not an expert on the constitution nor, one would think, particularly influential as an MP. In short, it doesn’t really matter what he thinks in the great scheme of things.

So we must ask, why do the press keep pouring oil on the fire? If I wanted to play my hand here, I might argue that the right-wing interests behind the mainstream press have no interest in a reasoned conversation about Brexit lest the Leave camp come to their senses and change their minds. This would be unfair, however: I’m sure there are just as many cynical interests on the Remain side who are equally worried that, given a real conversation between real people, support for derailing the Brexit process would wane.

There is in fact a much simpler explanation: as one social media expert put it, angry people click. People buy papers that make them feel part of the drama. No-one wants to read tedious articles about the UK constitution. If IDS had said “Naturally we are frustrated by this delay but accept the lawful intervention of the court, in line with statute and legal precedent” it wouldn’t sell a single copy. In short, it is in the interests of the media to perpetuate the flame war, to reduce us to caricatures of our reasonable selves, and to have us hurl abuse rather than take one another seriously.

The public are caught in the middle of a flame war with media on all sides playing the trolls. Mainstream and independent media are, I think, equally complicit, but the real villains are people like you and me. Every click that’s preceded by a sigh and a “for goodness’ sake!” is another bone thrown to the trolls and another splash of oil on the fire.

This state of affairs is, I think, the natural product of a world in which there is more news media than we can possibly consume, but it serves powerful interests superbly well. Busy trading insults, we forget who the real villains are: rapacious businesses mistreating their employees, construction companies assuring that the housing ladder is missing the bottom few rungs, a banking sector that does little for the real economy, an incompetent government intent on dismantling social security and the welfare state, and a press controlled by too few people and too strapped for cash to do real journalism.

We have to find it in ourselves to rise above our simpler instincts. We must all be better men and women, and take pause before we bang our heads on the walls of our echo chambers. We shout at the press for being biased, for getting their facts wrong, for inflating and conflating the issues; but the truth is that we are the ones paying them to do so. There’s no harm in a little drama and no reason why one shouldn’t read things that confirm ones beliefs; but we have to stop shouting, and start listening, if we’re going to come together as a nation and find a way through the challenges ahead.

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Some Thoughts on the Economics of Brexit

I have no special expertise in economics, but my reasons for voting Remain were economic ones, so I thought it was worth setting them out in the unlikely event that anyone cares about why I voted as I did.

Letting the Dust Settle

Once Article 50 is invoked, two processes begin. The EU decides on what basis they are willing to relate to us moving forward, and the ROW (Rest Of the World) starts positioning itself to do the same. The ROW can’t really decide what to do until the EU has spoken, but some groundwork can be done. At the end of these processes, we have a new trade agreement with the EU and new trade agreements with ROW.

How long will all this take? Trade agreements typically take about eight years to negotiate and there’s a general expectation that Article 50 takes two years to run. Let’s think optimistically, then: let’s say we wrap up Article 50 in one year, and the ROW negotiations go quickly and take just four years, and can start at the same time as Article 50, so we have a four year period of negotiation in total.

Pessimistically, after two years of Article 50 we still don’t have a deal we can live with so we hang in for another year, and the ins-and-outs of those negotiations constantly undermine our negotiations with ROW, so the clock on ROW negotiations doesn’t start until those three years are up, and then it takes the full eight years to negotiate new trade agreements. That gives a pessimistic figure of twelve years before the new set of agreements are in place.

Let’s split the difference and say eight years. No; let’s err on the side of optimism and say six. Now, once the new agreements are in place, businesses have to figure out how to take advantage of them before they really contribute to the economy. That’s probably going to take a year or two, but again, let’s be optimistic and say that this happens right away.

Investor Confidence

Over those six years, British businesses represent a greater investment risk than they did before the vote. An investment isn’t risky because you think it will fail; it’s risky because you don’t know if it will fail or not. Once Article 50 is served, investors will look at British businesses and think “I don’t know if this is a safe place to put my money, and I can’t know until these negotiations are concluded.” Now, I’m not saying that suddenly British businesses are going to become toxic – there will still be people happy to invest in them, but even in the optimistic case, British businesses will become a riskier proposition than they are at present, and remain a riskier proposition for six years.

Now, investors have a choice of where they put their money, and basically there are four relevant options: commodities (eg gold, oil); foreign businesses; British businesses; and government bonds. If British businesses become riskier, then the others, by comparison, become less risky, so money will move away from British businesses to the other three.

British businesses do not have to stand by helpless, of course. What they have to do to get money flowing back is to increase their profitability. The more the potential profits, the greater the risk investors will tolerate, so if you suddenly find you’re a riskier investment, the thing to do is to improve your margins.

How do businesses do this? The easiest thing to do is cut costs, because you have much more control over costs than income; and the easiest cost to cut is labour, because that’s the one you have most control over. So, you lay off staff and you cut wages; you defer recruitment; you demand that your staff work harder. In short, unemployment rises, wages fall, and working conditions get worse. Businesses can, of course, increase their prices; this leads to inflation, with everyone able to afford less. Living standards generally go down and the value of savings is eroded.

As unemployment rises, and wages fall, people have less free cash so the domestic market for goods and services starts to shrink. Businesses lose revenue, and the uncertainty about long term trading prospects makes it difficult for them to compensate for that by exploiting foreign markets (there are no new trade agreements in place at this point, remember). There is a risk, then, that we get caught in a vicious cycle, with rising unemployment leading to falling sales leading to rising unemployment, against a background of increasing prices.

Economic Growth

Thinking optimistically, we might be able to cause just enough unemployment to retain investment without the economy flat out collapsing. If we’re pessimistic, then even retaining a small amount of investment will pull us into recession. Let’s split the difference, and say that the economy flatlines – no recession, but no growth.

No; let’s be optimistic again. Over the last couple of years, UK GPD has grown by about 0.6% every quarter. Let’s assume that, instead of recession, or even flatlining, the reduction in investment just causes a bit of a slowdown and the economy continues to grow at half that rate. We’ve established a period of six years for the dust to settle, that is, before we see the benefit of new trade agreements. Over this time we would see the economy grow by 7%. This compares to it growing by 15% if we continued growing at our current rate. That is, Brexit halves our prospects of economic growth over the next six years, even thinking optimistically.

This is all crystal ball stuff, of course. But, it’s hard to see how there won’t be a reduction in investment in British businesses, given that they become a riskier proposition; and it’s hard to see how that doesn’t cause some reduction in economic growth; so the question is how much reduction it causes. Saying we avoid recession is pretty optimistic; saying we retain a reasonable level of growth, as I have done here, is even more so.

Recovery

Let’s try to stay positive though; Brexit, we might say, wasn’t meant to be a quick fix. Let’s say this is a ten year project, so we need to allow ourselves four more years to recover that loss. We’ve had six years of higher unemployment, lower wages and worse working conditions, but let’s say we can stomach another four. The end of uncertainty, let’s say, restores investor confidence and money flows back into British businesses. Left to its own devices, GDP growth would return to 0.6% per quarter. If we’d had a steady 0.6% growth over those ten years, the economy would have grown by 27%. To get the same overall growth after six years of limited growth, GDP would have to grow by 1.05% per quarter for those four recovery years.

That growth would have to come from improved trade, ie, selling our goods abroad (because that’s the only positive economic change Brexit gives us). Again, let’s be optimistic and assume we can do this right away – businesses don’t have to spend time marketing, establishing their brand, setting up operations etc. At the end of those six years, GDP would be within a gnat’s of £3tn, compared to the £3.2tn we would expect without those six limited years. Over those four recovery years, we’d expect GDP to total just shy of £12tn, compared to £12.9tn without the limited growth. So, over those four years, increased trade has to pull in a little under £900bn, or about £222bn per year, to compensate for our loss.

Let’s again be optimistic and assume that our trade with Europe remains the same, so all we have to do is boost ROW exports by £222bn (we don’t have to make up any lost trade with Europe). In 2015, our exports to ROW totalled £171bn. In other words, to make up for lost growth, we would have to significantly more than double our exports to ROW. If this doesn’t seem unrealistic, try to consider what it means in terms of individual sales, of actual business people finding actual customers. Imagine you’re a salesperson, and your boss comes to you and says “I need you to sell more than twice as much as you sold last year, and all your additional sales have to come from outside Europe.” With the best will in the world, how do you rise to that challenge?

So, thinking optimistically, with everything going smoothly and no catastrophes, we are looking at six years of increased unemployment, lower wages and worsened working conditions, and even in ten years, we will still be suffering the loss. We’re not talking the end of civilisation here; I don’t expect to see Westminster Bridge in flames or the Four Horsemen galloping across it. But even in the best case, the worst off in this country are going to be even worse off than they are now, for at least ten years. That seems an awfully high price to pay for any other benefits Brexit might bring us.

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That Birthday Dinner Party in Full

Rose Biscuits

These, like many of the evening’s dishes, were obtained from the Good Food Network. GFN have lots of good stuff and are great to deal with – it’s well worth checking out their site.

Watercress Soup with Rosemary Sourdough and Homemade Butter

The soup was broadly based on this recipe but I used about half the quantity of peas, potato and onion and omitted the cream. Crucially, instead of vegetable stock I used the stock from poaching two ham hocks on a previous occasion.

The bread was sourdough made by my usual method, adding two teaspoons of rosemary. TBH I don’t think the rosemary added much but double the quantity might have made a more definite impression.

I made the butter using guidance from this article. I don’t own butter bats so had to wash and dry the butter by hand. This was an absolute nightmare; I think butter is one of those things best made in a factory, unless you happen to have a source of particularly good cream.

Beech Smoked Mackerel

This was another acquisition from GFN. The salad was just a mixed leaf salad, dressed in the oil from the mackerel mixed with a little tomato puree.

Goat’s Cheese and Walnut Tart with Avocado and Lime Caviar

The pastry for this was a high-fat shortcrust pastry, using 2:1.2 flour to fat, with the fat made up of 3:1 butter to lard. I blended everything in a food processor and added 1 egg yolk (for about 130g flour) and enough water to just bring it together as a dough. I’ve been experimenting with pastry recently, including using the traditional French “fraiser” technique, and I have to say the dough I got using the food processor was just as good.

I lined the tart cases with the pastry and left them in the fridge for an hour before trimming them and baking them blind for 10 minutes at 200C.

The lower layer of the filling was a crème patisserie made with 25g flour, 2 egg yolks, 250ml milk and 100g of ground walnut, seasoned with a little salt and pepper (and, of course, no sugar). I would have used 4 egg yolks but ran out of eggs!

The upper layer was goat’s cheese blended with just enough cream to make it flexible enough to pipe using a piping bag, and a little (1 part in 20, roughly) parmesan for a bit more flavour.

The tarts were baked for about 20 minutes at 200C, until the cheese browned.

The avocados were just ripe; I didn’t do anything other than peel and slice them.

To make the lime caviar, I put a bottle of vegetable oil in the freezer for a couple of hours. Then, I mixed 80ml of lime juice with 1tsp of glucose and 1g agar-agar, and brought the mixture to the boil. I let this cool for about 10 minutes, then filled a tall half-litre glass with the oil and used a pipette to drop droplets of the lime juice mixture into it.

This process is very sensitive to the temperature of the oil and the size of the droplets. If the oil is too cold, the droplets don’t sink; if it’s too warm, they don’t solidify properly and stick together at the bottom of the glass. If the droplets are too small, they don’t sink; if they are too big, they don’t solidify properly on the inside so they don’t stick but are prone to bursting. If you have problems with the droplets sinking, a little nudge with the back of the pipette will usually get them moving.

This is really a matter of trial and error, but on the plus side, if the lime mixture solidifies while you’re buggering about, gentle reheating will bring it back to a liquid state. Also, if you’ve got the lime mixture right, it should solidify when you let it reach room temperature (because that’s essentially what you want the droplets to do).

The droplets will hold in the oil for a few hours (if need be). After this, tip the mixture into a sieve and gently rinse the caviar with cold water. You should find that the individual “pearls” will separate reasonably well, but too much poking around or exposure to water might reduce the lot to a limey slush.

Tarelli Biscuits with Chilli Garlic

These were just two acquisitions from GFN served together.

Salmon with Pesto and Peccorino with Polenta

This was a Delia recipe. The polenta was made with 1L water and 300g cornmeal, 0.5tsp salt and a little garlic olive oil. I find it easiest to make polenta by putting the cornmeal in the pan with the salt and adding cold water; this means no lumps form. I then bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly once it gets above about 40C. Once it thickens, I keep it at a medium temperature for five minutes, stirring constantly. This takes a lot of effort, as the mixture is very stiff, but it gives a good result if you’re after something which will set and stay set when reheated.

The cooked polenta was allowed to set in a baking dish then covered in garlic olive oil and baked at 200C for about 30 minutes.

Figs in Chocolate

Another GFN purchase

Violet Ice Cream with Crème de Banane

There is some consensus that this was a bit of a triumph, but the recipe is actually very simple. The ice-cream was made with 500ml custard (3 eggs, 400ml milk, 100ml cream, 2tsp cornflour) and 200ml Moulin de Valdonne Violette Sirop, available from French Click. I also added 4g of ice cream stabiliser which gives a smoother, softer ice cream.

The violet cordial is a beautiful intense purple, and has the look (when diluted in water) of particularly attractive stained glass. I was hoping this would carry through to the ice-cream, but this instead turned out a sort of baby blue / aquamarine.

I served each individual ice cream bombe with a couple of teaspoons of crème de banane and some crystallised violet petals to give a little crunch without adding the saltiness of a biscuit.

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Sourdough

Over the last eighteen months I’ve been trying to bake sourdough bread. I think I’ve finally cracked it. The approach I use is inspired by a talk by Aiden Chapman at the Cake and Bake Show, but I’m not sure he’d approve of where I’ve ended up.

Every sourdough needs a starter, and I have a 2 litre container of starter in the fridge. This was built up over time from a starter I bought from another Cake and Bake Show exhibitor. There’s no shortage of places you can get a starter, or you can make your own; I don’t know if there’s anything to choose between these options.

Having a large volume of starter means that the acids which give sourdough its characteristic flavour get a chance to build up between bakes. With a new starter, it takes a few weeks to get the flavours going.

I bake a loaf most weeks, but if I don’t, I feed the starter on Tuesday evening, replacing 240ml of the mix with 120ml of water and 120ml of flour. Starters naturally decrease in volume over time so occasionally I will add an extra spoon of flour if the volume looks low; this probably amounts to 30ml of flour every six weeks.

If I’m baking a loaf then on Tuesday evening I add 120ml of water and 120ml of flour to the starter and leave it in the kitchen overnight. On Wednesday morning I make a sponge using 240ml of the starter (which then goes back in the fridge), topped up to 440ml with lukewarm water. I add 60ml of flour to this, and let it sit in a whichever room of the flat is warmest until it’s frothy. This usually takes about four to six hours. If in doubt I use a longer time rather than a shorter one.

I then make a dough using 500g strong white flour, the sponge, 30ml of olive oil, 1.5tsp salt and 1tsp ascorbic acid. I use white flour because I prefer the resulting flavour and texture, but I’ve tried various mixtures of plain, strong and stoneground and they all work pretty well. The ascorbic acid aids gluten development and helps the bread develop an open crumb. You can get ascorbic acid on eBay.

I make the dough in a bread machine using the dough cycle, but take it out as soon as it’s finished kneading. I’m pretty much convinced that kneading bread is the sort of thing machines were invented for, but hand kneading would probably work just as well.

The dough then sits in the fridge from Wednesday afternoon until Friday morning. I usually put it in a plastic food back and then in a bowl to support it. On Friday morning, I tip it into a banneton and cover it in cling film. This is a fairly dry dough so it has a tendency to develop a bit of a crust if it’s allowed to dry out. I leave the banneton in the warmest room until the dough doubles in volume; this is usually about six hours.

I sometimes laminate the dough, but I’m not sure how much this helps. To do this, when I take it out of the fridge, instead of tipping it into the banneton, I tip it out onto a silicone baking sheet and cover it with the banneton, and then leave it for about half an hour. During this time, the stiff ball of dough from the fridge will relax a little and spread out over the surface of the baking sheet. I then fold the dough in half and cover it again. After half an hour, I do another fold and then tip it into the banneton and continue as before. The result is that the dough has air trapped within it, which gives it a more open texture. Using the baking sheet means that I don’t need to add any flour during this process (which controls the hydration of the dough) and letting it spread out means that I can fold it very gently, without knocking out any of the CO2.

I bake the dough in a fan oven, but TBH I don’t think it’s a very good one and most things I cook in it I use the instructions for a standard oven rather than a fan one. I preheat the oven to 250C, with a baking tray inside. Once the oven has reached temperature, I dust a silicone baking sheet with flour and tip the dough onto it. I then slash the dough and dust it with flour. Then, I take the baking tray out of the oven and slide the baking sheet (with the dough) onto it. I cover the dough with an old metal casserole dish which acts as a cloche.

I bake the dough for 15 minutes at 250C, then reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for a further 25 minutes. Then, I remove the cloche and bake for 10 more minutes at 220. This three-phase procedure is one I developed to give the best balance of crust development, browning and moisture.

This gives a very tasty sourdough with a good crumb and a good crust. I usually leave it for about two hours to cool, then cut it in half and put half in the freezer and leave half in a plastic food bag for use over the next couple of days. It is a little dryer than some other sourdoughs, so goes stale more quickly, but I personally prefer this over the alternative. A shorter time on the second baking phase yields a moister loaf.

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Molecular Gastronomy Dinner Party

Recipes and Equipment

Most of the recipes were from this book. Despite the relative “wow” factor and novelty of the dishes, this was actually a pretty straightforward menu, with only 3.5 hours prep before the event and probably ¾ hour during the meal. The most difficult dish, in fact, was the chocolate bowl, as this involved the complicated business of tempering the chocolate (which, as it happens, I didn’t get right).

The whipper (used for the velouté and the porto cheddar) came from here.

The salt slabs came from here.

Most of the specialist ingredients are available on eBay or Amazon, but there is a selection of kits by Kalys (also available on eBay / Amazon) which contain smaller, ready-measured amounts of most of the ingredients you’ll need to experiment with this sort of recipe. You’ll also need a good set of scales which can weigh to about 0.1g accuracy. These can be expensive, but I found these which worked perfectly well.

Foamed Carrot Velouté

This was my own recipe, inspired by a visit to the James Martin restaurant on Deansgate. I haven’t found a precise way to make this one, but the procedure is roughly as follows:

  1. Roast 1kg of carrots with a little oil to help them brown. You can add half an onion too for a bit more flavour
  2. Puree the roast vegetables with enough liquid to make up 1 litre. I’ve used vegetable stock, chicken stock and water at different times and all work quite well. The liquid needs to be as smooth as you can get it – I use the liquidiser of a food processor running for about four minutes.
  3. Make a roux with 75g flour and 75g butter, and gradually stir in the liquid
  4. You now want to thin this out a little to get the right consistency. It should be possible to pour the mixture, but it should need a little encouragement, a bit like the stage whipping cream reaches just before it starts to form peaks. If the mixture is too thin, it won’t foam well, but if it’s too thick, it will stick to the inside of the whipper and not assimilate the gas. If you’re uncertain, err on the side of too thin, but stop short of the mixture being actually runny.
  5. Warm your serving bowls. The process of getting the veloute into the whipper and foaming and serving it is quite time consuming and the veloute will start to cool down, and having the serving bowls hot makes this less of a problem.
  6. Put about 750ml of the mixture into a one litre whipper, and charge with two cylinders of gas. You’ll need to handle the whipper with oven gloves as the heat from the veloute will make it hot to handle. Shake vigorously for 20-30s.
  7. Carry the whipper to the sink, turn it upside down and discharge it very briefly – there is likely to be a big bubble of gas between you and the soup.
  8. To serve, invert the whipper with the nozzle about ¾” from the bottom of the bowl and dispense enough soup to cover the bottom of the bowl (this only takes about 1/2s). Then put the nozzle under the surface of the soup and discharge again until you have the portion size you want

The quantities for this recipe will provide about six modest portions (about 250ml each).

Bell Pepper Spheres

This was made using a technique called reverse frozen spherification. Spherification is a gelling technique in which the gel requires two chemicals, sodium alginate and a calcium salt (in this case, calcium lactate). On its own, sodium alginate will thicken liquids, but not gellify them. The calcium in the calcium salt helps the molecules of sodium alginate bond with each other, forming a gel.
In basic spherification, sodium alginate is mixed with the liquid to be gellified and dropped into a bath of calcium lactate. In reverse spherification, the calcium lactate is mixed with the liquid to be gellified and dropped into a bath of sodium alginate. The aim is to produce a flavoured gel sphere or other shape with a liquid centre which produces a burst of flavour in the mouth.

There are some differences between the two processes:

    1. Because sodium alginate is itself a thickening agent, a concentrated sodium alginate bath can be quite viscous, so when liquid is dropped into it, it might hover on the surface rather than drop into the bath
    2. If the liquid to be gellified is milk-based, the calcium in the milk will form a gel if mixed with sodium alginate, so reverse spherification has to be used
    3. The gel formed in basic spherification is likely to pick up excess calcium ions from the bath, which continue to penetrate into the core of the gellified sphere after it is removed from the bath. This makes it difficult to stop the gellification process, whereas the process of reverse spherification can be halted by removing the gels from the sodium alginate and rinsing off any alginate on the surface

In reverse frozen spherification, the liquid to be gellified is first frozen. This allows greater control over the shape of the finished product. For the bell pepper spheres, I used a silicone mould for this.

Tomato Cannelloni with Balsamic Vinegar Pearls

This recipe used two gels – a tomato juice gel for the “cannelloni” and a balsamic vinegar gel for the beads. Both were made by combining the flavoured liquid with agar-agar, a gelling agent derived from algae. It produces a firm, slightly brittle gel with a soft mouth feel. I made the cannelloni too thick, which meant it wasn’t possible to roll it around the cheese filling; it needs to be about 1/8” thick rather than 1/4″.

The recipe didn’t call for any seasoning in the tomato juice; I added a little salt and cayenne pepper, and was concerned that this would affect the chemistry. In fact, salt can affect some gelling agents, but doesn’t affect agar-agar, and those it does affect it only affects in high concentrations. The pH of the mixture is also important, and can affect the choice of gelling agent for a recipe.

Both gels were made by heating the flavour base with agar agar and cooking for a few minutes, then cooling, but the cooling process was different for the two. The cannelloni was allowed to cool briefly at room temperature and then put in the fridge (it set after about 15 minutes) while the balsamic vinegar mix was dropped into a tall glass of chilled vegetable oil using a pipette. The droplets cooled rapidly as they fell down the glass so that they were solid by the time they reached the bottom.

Carpaccio with Horseradish Foam

The horseradish foam was made by whipping a mixture of horseradish and water with soy lecithin, using a hand blender to incorporate air into the mixture. Soy lecithin molecules have three “arms”, two of which are hydrophobic (repelled from water) and one of which is hydrophilic (attracted to water). As air bubbles form, the two hydrophobic arms are pulled into the bubbles and the hydrophilic arm pulled outside. This forms a protective shell around the bubble, stabilising it and trapping it in the liquid. The resulting foam can be scooped off and lasts for about 30 minutes.

Monkfish Cooked on Salt Slabs

The salt slabs had been in the oven on its highest setting for about an hour. They can also be heated over a naked flame or on a barbeque; using them on a barbeque would probably help maintain their temperature and capacity to cook. The monkfish wasn’t prepared in any way – all the flavour came from the fish itself and the slabs.

Porto Cheddar

This was a port jelly with a whipped cheese and cream topping. The recipe for the port jelly called for cold soluble gelatine, which I wasn’t able to find a supplier for. I used ordinary powdered gelatine instead, heating the port just enough to allow this to dissolve. Gelatine based gels, unlike the other gels we tried, melt in the mouth, giving this dish a different feel to the others.

The whipped cheese layer was produced using the cream whipper (like the velouté) but was a bit trickier. The cheese was melted and mixed with cream and this produced a mixture which was much more viscous cold than hot. Once cold, in fact, the liquid was too viscous to foam effectively because it stuck to the sides of the whipper when shaken. So, the mixture has to be added to the whipper hot, shaken to incorporate the gas, and then allowed to cool. For the quantities given in the book, a half litre whipper would produce better results than a one litre.

Strawberries with Wine Vinegar

These were simply hulled strawberries filled with a white wine vinegar gel. The gel was produced using kappa carrageenan, another algae-derived gelling agent. This makes a firmer, clearer gel than agar-agar but is in many respects very similar.

Chocolate Desert Bowl

This one has been doing the rounds of the internet; one of many recipes is given here.

The recipes doing the rounds don’t mention this, but it’s really important to temper the chocolate, or the bowl is likely to break, and won’t look as attractive as the ones in the photos. Tempering is a tricky business which involves heating and cooling the chocolate over a precise temperature range. There is lots of advice on how to do this on the net, but as I haven’t yet mastered it I can’t say which is best to go with.

If you try this recipe, it helps if you use a narrow bowl so that there’s as little as possible of the balloon below the rim of the bowl. Otherwise, chocolate will run down the balloon over the edge of the bowl making it difficult to remove the chocolate and ruining the spiky effect.

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Recent Recipes

This is a busy month for cooking, with three dinner parties over four weeks. The third is quite a big one – eight courses for 13 people – so I’ve taken the opportunity to experiment with a few recipes over the last two. Here are some results worth sharing:

Celeriac Soup

This was cooked according to this recipe. I tried a few recipes from this site, but many of them were difficult to follow and in some cases didn’t give very good results, as far as I can tell just because the details of the recipe hadn’t been kitchen tested. The celeriac soup, though, was a winner.

Tibetan Fried Bread

I latched on to this recipe because it was mentioned in an episode of Elementary. It really is worth the effort – the bread is delicious, and takes almost no work. When we served it with the celeriac soup (for six) we used half the quantities and added six generous teaspoons of horseradish sauce. We could probably have added a little more. The bread also works well if you add fried onion and grated cheese, although the cheese has a slight tendency to burn.

Mushroom Pate

I often find that mushroom pate doesn’t taste of very much, so decided to try concentrating the flavour by microwaving them on low power to drive off excess water. I started by frying the mushrooms and pureeing them, and then microwaved them on 40% power (800W microwave) in five minute bursts until their weight had reduced by about a third. I then added a little fried onion and garlic and some brandy for flavour before mixing with enough melted butter to make a pate. The microwaving concentrated the mushroom flavour very well.

Scallops with Chorizo, Pheasant in Cider

Both these recipes – from Nigella and Delia – were straightforward and worked as expected. The pheasant went well with buttered carrots and roast potatoes.

White and Dark Chocolate Gateau

This was a combination of four recipes. The base was 1cm of Genoise sponge (taken from Leith’s Cookery Bible; there’s nothing special about the recipe, this one would no doubt work as well). On top of this was a layer of white chocolate mousse made to this recipe, but omitting the milk and adding 2 tablespoons of Amaretto. Then we had a layer of dark chocolate mousse made with Hervé This’s recipe (which has chocolate and water as its only ingredients). The whole thing was coated with the dark chocolate glaze from the Great British Chef’s Black Forest Gateau, much the same recipe as can be found here.

The Hervé This mousse is well worth a try, but it does take a surprisingly long time to go from chocolatey water to mousse (about five minutes, I found). As with many things, it’s largely a matter of not losing your nerve. The thickening process is quite gentle at first but speeds up after about another minute and a half of whipping.

The dark chocolate glaze, on the other hand, was an absolute nightmare. I was hoping to get a thin, completely smooth coating which would give the cake a shiny finish and set to a consistency which was easy to cut. The basic technique (as far as I can tell) is to pour the glaze onto the cake in a single stream, allowing it to spread naturally creating a smooth surface. However, it proved to be very temperature sensitive – too hot and it flowed too quickly, with too much glaze on the side of the cake and not enough on the top; too cold and it started to set before reaching the edge. This latter meant that it had to be spread using a trowel and so didn’t have the completely smooth shiny surface I was hoping for. Once set, it remained very sticky, making the cake difficult to handle without tearing off the glaze, which would take some mousse or sponge with it. It had a good rich chocolate flavour, but was also very sweet so detracted a little from the more delicate flavours in the white chocolate mousse.

Asparagus and Blue Cheese Tarts

These were inspired by this recipe. The six tart cases were paté-a-paté, made with 200g flour, 100g butter, 2 egg yolks and a little water. These were baked blind for eight minutes (lined with baking paper and with baking beans to stop the pastry rising), then coated with egg wash and baked for another two minutes. This sealed them so that the pastry was crisp in the finished product.

We boiled the asparagus for about five minutes, and put in the cases with a custard made from 200ml double cream and three egg yolks. We then baked them for a further 15 minutes, then added a slice of blue cheese on top of each and baked for a further 10.

We served them with watercress dressed in basic white wine vinaigrette, mixed with a little red onion and anchovy salsa. In combination with the cheese this made the dish a little salty, but the flavours combined well.

Ham Hock with Tonka Bean Crumpets

The ham was roasted in a sealed iron dish for 90 minutes at 200°C, on a trivet of sliced onion, with a little water. It was coated in a mixture of flour, mustard powder, cinnamon, ginger and dried cloves. This added almost nothing to the flavour, and I think pretty much any method for cooking the ham would have worked just as well.

After resting, we stripped the meat from the joint and cut the skin into eight pieces which went back into the oven at 230°C for 35 minutes. This crisped them up nicely to make the crackling.

The red cabbage was chopped and combined with two chopped apples, then cooked over a very, very gentle heat in a mixture of butter, cloves, cinnamon, sugar and white wine vinegar, for about two hours. This gives a mild sauerkraut sort of flavour and the spices are very evocative of the Christmas season. The recipe was inspired by this one from Delia.

Tonka beans similarly have a spicy, aromatic flavour. They’re an unusual ingredient, but in the UK you can get tonka bean powder online from Sous Chef (and it’s well worth having a look around the site generally). We fried six crumpets in butter with a couple of teaspoons of tonka bean powder to form the base of the dish. The crumpets absorb the flavours very well and go crispy after about five minutes. We then assembled the dish, topping each crumpet first with cabbage, then shredded ham, and then a piece of crackling. A dollop of crème fraiche brought all the textures together.

Duck Breast with Polenta Fries

This was pretty much a direct rendition of this recipe, but with a couple of variations:

  1. We made the polenta with water rather than milk, and used 150g rather than 100g to 500ml to help it set. We added 45ml of orange liqueur rather than just a dash which gave a very satisfactory orange flavour. The sugar in the liqueur also helped offset the bitterness of the orange zest.
  2. The vinaigrette was just mixed together rather than made like a mayonnaise. This gave a runny product (I’m not sure what the original recipe intended here) but it worked well on the plate.

The polenta fries took 8-10 minutes to cook when fried in batches of twelve. The quantity of polenta used yielded 24 reasonably sized fries, so we had to cook them in two batches, which threw the timings of the meal slightly.

Chocolate Gateau Take Two

This was inspired by this recipe, but was rather simpler to make. The base was a flourless chocolate sponge from Green and Black’s Chocolate Recipes (melted 150g dark chocolate, 135g sugar and 85g butter with a pinch of salt in a bain marie, then folded in 2 large eggs beaten with half a tablespoon of ground almonds) . The dense fudgy texture of this worked much better than the lighter texture of the Genoise in the previous desert.

We topped the sponge with a thin layer of cherry jam which had been blended with a little water (to make it smooth) and then reduced (to drive off the added water). Then we added a layer of dark chocolate mousse, again made to the Hervé This recipe, but using 200g chocolate, 100ml water and 50ml Kirsch. We coated this with the same chocolate glaze as before.

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One of my neighbours plays on the recorder

The evening seems unnaturally quiet
As daylight fades and still-warm afternoon
Gives way to autumn darkness
I listen to the city sounds, unusually
I realise how many things I hear
The traffic, voices, music
One of my neighbours plays on the recorder
Not three blind mice but something more
Elaborate and haunting
As if to underline the autumn stillness
Transforming and transporting northern nights
To somewhere more exotic
So many sounds, and yet I hear the stillness
Because the night herself now seems determined
To let me hear her business
The traffic, voices, music, all the workings
Of the city, all the steady rythms of life
She gathers up and carries
To my patient ears; and as I sit here longing
For some small loving miracle to touch me
She speaks and gives me hope.

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A few recipes

These recipes have gone down well at dinner parties recently, so I thought I’d share them:

Blue Cheese Scones

These make an interesting accompaniment to soup but are good at breakfast too. They freeze well.

Makes 16

  • 250g Blue Cheese
  • 250g Self Raising Flour
  • 1/4tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • Cold water

Put the flour, cheese and pepper into a food processor and blend to a fine crumb. Slowly add water until the mixture starts to form a dough. It’s not a huge problem if you add more water rather than less. Once the mixture is a little sticky, turn it out onto  a floured surface and knead for a few seconds to bring it together. Divide into 16 equal portions, roll into balls and flatten slightly to make discs a little over 1” thick. Place on a baking tray and bake for 35 minutes at 200C.

Chicken in Caesar Sauce

Serves 6 as a starter

  • 300g Crème Fraiche
  • 100g Parmesan, finely grated
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red onion, coarsely chopped
  • 70g anchovy fillets, finely chopped
  • 450g chicken, cut into 3/4” cubes
  • 3 cloves of garlic finely chopped
  • Zest of 1/2 lemon
  1. Gently sauté the finely chopped onion and garlic until just starting to brown, then add the rest of the onions and cook until they start to soften. The aim here is to get some caramel flavours from the finely chopped onion, but retain the crunch and sweetness of the coarsely chopped onion.
  2. Add the crème fraiche and anchovies and bring up to a simmer
  3. Add the parmesan and stir until melted and the sauce is smooth
  4. In a separate pan, fry the chicken in a little oil until brown on the outside and cooked all the way through.
  5. Add the finished sauce to the chicken and season to taste (you probably won’t want to add salt, thanks to the cheese and anchovies)

Serve with pasta

  • The lemon lifts this sauce and offsets the saltiness of the anchovies and the oiliness of the crème fraiche and cheese, but it can easily become too prominent. If you’re using ripe lemons, just add half the quantity of zest to start with, and add more to taste. If you overdo it, a few tablespoons of white wine will help balance the flavours.
  • You can blend the anchovies into the crème fraiche before adding it to give a slightly stronger anchovy flavour
  • If you’re cooking this at a dinner party, you can prepare the sauce a few hours in advance and refrigerate it. Then when you’re ready to serve, fry the chicken, add the sauce to the pan once the chicken is cooked and stir through until warm.

Lemon Pudding

This is based on one of the recipes in Lord James Harrington and the Spring Mystery, which is well worth 99p for the Kindle edition if you enjoy undemanding mystery novels. It produces a pudding with a sponge top and a lemon curd base.

Serves 6

  • 150g caster sugar
  • 25g margarine
  • 2 eggs
  • 60g self-raising flour
  • 250ml milk
  • Zest and juice of 2 lemons
  1. Separate the eggs and beat the whites to firm peak stage
  2. Cream the sugar and margarine together
  3. Add the lemon rind and juice and mix
  4. Sieve in the flour and mix again
  5. Beat in the egg yolks
  6. Add the milk
  7. Fold the mixture into the beaten egg white
  8. Pour into a well-greased dish in a baking tray of hot water
  9. Bake for 55 minutes at 180C

If the sponge looks a little pale at the end of the cooking time, return to the oven for five minutes at 200C.

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Film Log: Love Bite

Details here

There’s something of a tradition of British comedies which take a slightly surreal conceit and flesh it out with well-drawn and slightly quirky characters and a bit of observational humour. Love Bite fits well into this mould: while it does have plenty of werewolf action, it’s basically a story about a teenage boy learning to navigate the world of sex and relationships.

My own experience of this time of life was fairly atypical and is now merely a distant memory, and as a result I probably didn’t appreciate some of the finer points of the writing. This didn’t spoil my enjoyment, though: all the characters are very likeable and the cast very watchable. Timothy Spall as the eccentric and slightly incompetent werewolf hunter is a joy but doesn’t outshine his fellow players.

That same tradition – in contrast to US products like American Pie – is grounded in a less optimistic (or perhaps more realistic) view of life and favours cynicism over sentimentality, and Love Bite uses its werewolf theme to give us a slightly dark ending rather than the happily-ever-after we might expect from the premise. Similarly, while this film tries to explore the dilemmas we face as sexuality becomes part of our lives, it doesn’t moralise – it’s just an enjoyable yarn about some people you might quite like to hang out with for a while. It strikes a good balance between the different things it’s trying to accomplish, and this is perhaps its weakness: the need to give the characters room to breath means the horror never gets very dark while the need to sustain the who-is-the-werewolf plot line means the comedy never gets to take centre stage.

One of the dangers of the sexual ingénue theme is the temptation to put the lead in contrived and embarrassing situations which leave the audience cringing. Love Bite does a splendid job of avoiding this, and taken in combination with everything else the result is a consistently enjoyable couple of hours.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

My del.icio.us links