Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

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Overwhelmed by meaning
I sit located
In a plethora of networks
Symbols surround me
Gateways and connections
To every lived experience
I feel I could reach out and touch
Humanity itself
I feel inspired
A thousand ties
Connect me to eternity
Destiny and history
Well up within me
But I find I am the puppet,
Not the master
The very cords that raise my eyes
Bind my hands.

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Filed under: Writing

The Old Shamen

All he does now is watch.
The young men no longer seek
His counsel; the women will not bear
The children that he could not feed
His mind is lively still but now his
Body will betray him, every step
That falters symbol of his impotence.
The young chief watches, surrounded by his kin
The jealous younger shamen near his side,
Counting, like the sage, the days until
The great god comes and takes him
Prevented only by Old Ways
From putting a more preemptory
End to his irrelevance.
He sees their faces: he has touched them all,
But only for a moment – his engagement
Fleeting, transitory, just a word, a charm
Enough to mend the problem, set the course
And then move on; he is present only
Where there is pain he can relieve
And now he can do nothing
And they no longer see him.
Only the gods whose will he sought
Await him now.

Filed under: Writing

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.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Film Log: Pacific Rim

Details here

It might seem odd to criticise a science fiction film on the grounds that it was implausible, but there are just too many things in this film that don’t add up. It begins with a long montage-with-voiceover serving to establish the conceits of the piece, and it doesn’t do a very good job. It’s not clear why the best defence against giant sea monsters is giant robots, as opposed to, say, ground to air missiles, or why those robots need two pilots sitting inside them attached to neural interfaces, as opposed to one pilot with a joystick and a remote control, or why the neural interfaces allow people to share memories which is, quite frankly, a much more interesting technological advance than the ability to fight giant sea monsters. A Mecha-Kaiju movie needs to establish a need for a lot of these elements, but the way Pacific Rim does this is at best perfunctory and at worst a waste of time that could be taken up with actual drama.

The montage, the unconvincing grounds for the conceits, and the problems with the science (confronted with an underwater nuclear explosion, holding on to something really really tight just isn’t going to cut it) all indicate a laziness in the script which makes itself felt throughout the film. There’s a lot of shouting but no real drama; caricature but no comedy; and a stream of clichéd set pieces where the plot should be.

I’d like to say at this point that the film made up for these failings with its aesthetic – this is, after all, a piece which provides no end of opportunity to impress us visually. And indeed, this is a pretty film. But pretty films are no longer difficult to make, and there is nothing here which is innovative either technically or aesthetically. The robots and monsters are competently done, the cityscapes are recognisable and the scenes of destruction and devastation are realistic, but there is nothing to make us sit up and take notice.

Again, this leaves us with a sense that the film isn’t trying hard enough. Similarly with the casting: There are no big names here, apart from Ron Perleman, whose presence merely points up the relative weakness of the cast as a whole. Hunnam, Elba and the rest give perfectly good performances but very much at the standard of a better episode of Dr Who than a feature film.

Filed under: Film + TV

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.

Filed under: Uncategorized

A little drama

I should like a little drama; a little
Unpredictability
In a life of deadlines and commitments
I should like to stand, one windswept night,
And utter, “I must go now”
And turn my face into the rain, my long coat billowing
And walk away, knowing those I left behind
Would struggle but prevail; I should like
To be the only one to know the Secret
And struggle with the terrible decision
Of whom I should reveal it to.
But I will not let go of you
So I will push the rocks uphill each day
And do that which is necessary
To keep the roof above our heads
And feed us and provide
The hundred little comforts
That make you happy
The dishwasher will be my mission
My desk my great adventure
But I will keep you warm, and safe

Filed under: Writing

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.

Filed under: Uncategorized

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.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Film Log: Man of Steel

Details here.

All superhero movies face the problem of how to generate sympathy for the protagonist; after all, it’s hard  to feel sorry for someone with superpowers. The recent trend of “reboot” films face the additional problem of how to tell a story which the audience has already heard in such a way as to give the retelling some artistic purpose or at least, to feel worth the effort.

Man of Steel felt to me like two films: everything up until Zod’s arrival at Earth and everything thereafter. The first part offered no very good solutions to the first problem, falling back on the old and implausible stand-by of Superman unable to use his powers for fear of his identity being revealed. I was hopeful, after a promising start on Krypton, and a cut straight to an adult Superman rescuing survivors from an oil rig disaster, that we would be spared the tedium of a whiny childhood in Smallville; but a few minutes later we were in flashback central, subjected to the secret identity cant overlaid with the traditional but slightly troubling proto-fascist “what the world needs is one really strong man” narrative.

The first half did, however, add some interesting ideas to the Krypton backstory in a way which laid the ground very nicely for the second half. This was rather better, developing the basic idea that Superman had to choose between saving his own race or defending humanity, adding nicely to the well-known story while also giving our (super)hero a genuine moral dilemma and a reason for us to care about him which didn’t depend on his refusal to man up and get on with his life. It didn’t go as far with this as it might have done, but this part of the film was a fairly satisfying by-the-numbers alien invasion romp and too much philosophy would probably have made it a lot less fun than it was.

Having been fairly ambivalent about the first hour of this flick, the second part won me over, right until the unnecessary five minute coda where Superman and Zod slug it out and destroy huge swathes of Metropolis in the process. Like the rest of the film, this was technically very accomplished, but uncertain, from a storytelling point of view, quite what it was doing.

Filed under: Film + TV

Tomorrow

In youth tomorrows
Are so many that no one
Can eclipse today

In age tomorrow
Is uncertainty and death
And today is life

But in times between
Tomorrow can become a
Dark and hungry god

Filed under: Writing

My Bookshelf

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

My del.icio.us links