Monday, April 28, 2014

Spice Trail: Mexico and Queso Fresca

The slight variation on this month's Spice Trail Challenge from Vanesther at Bangers & Mash is that rather than pick an individual spice to cook with, she has chosen a whole spicy cuisine, that of Mexico.

I am also trying to put a slight twist on this, in that the focus of my contribution is about making one of Mexico's ingredients, queso fresca. Not a spicy ingredient at all, but one that may be used to temper down chilli heat.

I have been dabbling rather unsuccessfully at making cheese for a year now, but fresh style cheeses are easier and quicker to play with, so this seemed a good opportunity to have another go. I now think my cheese should have been pressed for a short while to get to the more authentic texture but it did produce a well flavoured tub of cheese. The downside was that when baked it turned rather rubbery, so I cannot have produced the exact cheese I was looking for. If you have any thoughts on how to avoid cheese turning to 'rubber' when cooked please comment at the end!  None the less I have some tasty soft cheese.
 I was using a UK published book by Paul Peacock which may be out of print as the paperback no longer shows on Amazon. However, having looked on the internet there seems to be a very detailed and authentic american recipe for making Mexican queso fresco cheese here: QuesoFresco. There is also an interesting link here for a Mexican Cheese summary from web site epicurious  which is based on notes from Mexican cuisine expert Diane Kennedy.
So here is my Mexican Queso Fresco

This cheese needs a culture, either in the form of fresh buttermilk or a starter. I had some starter in my freezer so I used that. By good fortune the rather expensive chocolate melter I purchased a few years ago makes an excellent milk warmer for cheese making. The temperature ranges they both need are similar and both also require gentle heat and accurate temperature control. I can only get 2 litres of milk into this melter so a rather small volume of cheese follows. From 2 litres of milk I ended up with about 450g drained curd. Pressing would have reduced the weight further. I keep the whey and use it for bread or soups, or at worst my chickens have their mash made up with it.

The milk is slowly warmed to 34C before the rennet is added. It is then held at that temperature for an hour.

Some Useful Tools
After an hour the curd is starting to set, you are looking for a 'clean break' ie the curd will hold together and leave a clear whey behind. A cloudy whey occurs when the curd has not set correctly and milk solids are breaking into small particles. I have tried to show how set the curd was, but my photos are not so clear. After the 60 minutes I decided to leave the curd for longer.
Cheese 1 hour after Rennet Added

Testing again after 90 minutes;
Cleaner break after 90 minutes 
I still was not convinced it was ready so I left it for another 15 minutes;
Whey separating readily from the curd
The curd is then cut into 2cm cubes and you see quite a separation of the whey as you do this.
Cutting the curd
The temperature is increased to 40C for 15 minutes.
'Cooked' curd
Now to removing and draining the curds;

The curds are then hung up in a muslin cloth to drain;
Once the whey has stopped dripping you can untie and unwrap!
Curds after draining in muslin
 The curds are then salted and I put mine into a draining basket to allow a little more whey to drain off. At this point the cheese can be used.
 So where better to look for a recipe using Mexican cheese than here:
 I already had a blade of beef joint slow roasting in the oven flavoured heavily with hot smoked paprika and just needed something to serve with it. What I found was a swiss chard pasta dish and this worked really well even though I have never associated pasta with mexican food before.

So here we have Sopa de Macarron y Acelgas or Macaroni with Swiss Chard to accompany paprika roast blade of beef.
 The pasta is cooked in water flavoured with mexican oregano (I knew I would need that herb sometime, takes it proudly from back of cupboard) scallion and salt. The pasta water is retained and added back later. After the pasta is cooked some garlic and finely chopped onions are softened in butter and then the chopped swiss chard is added and enough of the pasta water to keep everything moist. When the chard is cooked it is blended to a puree along with creme fraiche and extra pasta water to get a coating thickness to the sauce. The pasta is then stirred into the sauce, turned into a baking dish and put into a hot oven for about 10 minutes until bubbling, cheese sprinkled on top and then heated again to melt but not brown the cheese. This is where my cheese shrivelled up so it was scooped off (happy chickens) and we just added fresh cheese to the plated pasta.

The chard came from the garden and has survived the winter but now wants to run to seed so needs using up fast.

For the 'Mexican' Spice Trail round up pop over to Vanester's blog early in May

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Atul Kochhar's Aloo Dum

Potatoes Cooked with Melon Seeds (or cashews), from 'Simple Indian' by Atul Kochhar.

This month's Randon recipe challenge is a joint meeting of Dom, author of belleau kitchen blog, and Caroline author of  Caroline Makes and Ros of The More Than Occasional Baker.  The requirement was to select a cookbook on a totally random basis and then turn to the index and pick out a recipe from the A section that appealed.

I do not take part in the Random Recipe challenges as often as I would wish to because by golly they get me opening up books I have never used before. If I was more superstitious I might believe Dom had long distance powers to weight the odds of the unused books getting selected.

So Aloo Dum, or potato curry, was picked from the A's and made as closely as possible to the printed recipe. The author acknowledges that there are many variations in India for this dish but this version comes from Northern India and is enriched with yoghurt.

This makes a rather tasty snack on its own but we had it with a plain roast chicken and frozen peas. It was just as tasty reheated the next day which made the rather process intensive recipe seem more rewarding.

I did not have any melon seeds but the recipe gives cashews as an alternative and I had plenty of un-roasted unsalted cashews so those were used.

2tbs cashew nuts soaked in warm water for approx 15 minutes
vegetable oil for frying
2 medium onions peeled and finely sliced
500g peeled new potatoes (small or cut into even size chunks)
200g yoghurt
1.5tsp chopped ginger
1tsp minced garlic
0.5tsp ground coriander
0.5tsp chilli powder
0.5tsp ground cumin
1tsp salt

1tbs chopped fresh coriander if you are a coriander lover - I left it out

finishing spice powder
seeds from 3 black cardamom pods
0.5tsp fennel seeds
5cm cassia bark (I use cinnamon powder here as I have never, ever been able to grind cinnamon or cassia sticks to a powder).


  1. Drain the cashews and grind them to a paste in an electric food mill, set aside.
  2. In a heavy frying pan heat oil to a depth of 2cm and fry the finely sliced onions until softened and light brown. Then remove them from the pan and drain on paper towels.
  3. Now add the potatoes to the pan and fry until golden brown. This took me a lot more than the 3-4 minutes the recipe indicates but I may not have been using enough oil. Again, when cooked remove from the oil and drain on paper towels.
  4. Put the drained onions into a food mill/processor and whiz up to a paste. Add the yogurt and blitz again.
  5. Pour all but 3 tbs of oil from the pan (or start again with a fresh pan and 3tbs oil if the original oil  has any signs of burnt pieces in it) and pan fry the ginger and garlic until light golden brown.
  6. Add the ground spices of coriander, cumin and chilli to the pan and fry for a few seconds before adding in the onion and yoghurt paste.
  7. Then add the cashew nut paste, the drained potatoes and about 150ml of water and the 1tsp salt (or salt to taste).
  8. Simmer for at least 15 minutes and until the potatoes are tender (This took over 30 minutes for my dish).
  9. While the potatoes are cooking toast the cardamom, fennel (and cassia/cinnamon if using whole) in a dry pan until they start to pop. Tip the hot spices into a grinder or pestle and whiz to a powder (add cinnamon powder at end if not using the whole bark).
  10. Just before serving add the spice powder and chopped coriander to the potatoes. Garnish with extra coriander leaf to serve.

This post is being submitted to The Alphabakes Random Recipe Challenge

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Animal Biscuits for Easter

I am trying to catch up with my Easter Baking write-ups before Easter is all too soon, over so here is another quick review, this time of my Easter biscuit experiments. The money shot is of course the ones that found themselves dipped into chocolate so I will start with these:

The base biscuit is a plain sugar cookie (recipe link later). Once baked and cooled each cookie is then topped with a thin layer of marzipan (all the better if a high almond content marzipan can be used) which has been decorated by pressing a texture sheet or rolling pin over the surface first. The marzipan layer is cut out using the same cutters as the biscuits and then stuck to the biscuit by a thin layer of jam. I used a sieved cherry jam but apricot would be another good flavour. The biscuits are then 'carefully' dipped into a pool of tempered chocolate so that the chocolate coats just up to the edge of the marzipan layer. Eyes are added at the end. If you are making these for marzipan haters then decorate them with rolled fondant icing instead. The icing can be coloured which adds a lot more interest to the presentation.

Well, this chocolate dipping was fun but a rather messy business as plunging whole biscuits into a pool of chocolate whilst keeping them on the fork is a bit of an art that I have not yet mastered. They are very keen to hop off the dipping fork when they shouldn't and my clumsy dipping fork action also meant I was dribbling chocolate around rather too liberally and 'streaking' across the top of what started as perfectly dipped biscuits. So having managed about a dozen 'good' ones I gave up and decided plain biscuits were actually very good too!
The sugar cookie dough recipe comes from an American baking blogger Wanna Come With and I have used it twice now with great success. Please click over to the website for details as there are some super decorating tips there too and detailed instructions there.

The recipe makes a huge number of cookies but the baked cookies keep incredibly well. I have recently used a volume-to-weight-calculator-for-the-kitchen/ downloaded from Blog site Khymos to enable me to convert the recipe from american cups/spoons to grams. This also makes scaling the recipe very easy too, if you do not want a full batch. If you are often put off American baking recipes by the need to measure out your butter in tablespoons do give this download a go.

The cookie dough is quite versatile and I made a batch of it into chocolate chip cookies by simply kneading in a good handful of chocolate chips to the raw dough and then resting it for 30 minutes before rolling and baking. It is not so easy to get clean/sharp edges to the cookies once you have added 'chunks' but these are very tasty variations.
Currants would work just as well and make a more traditional Easter biscuit.

The texturing can be added directly to the cookie dough before baking as so long as the impression is reasonably deep. I had better results with my texture sheet than the rolling pin but I am sure that was just because the particular pin I used made quite a shallow indentation to the dough.

To use the texture sheet I placed it on top of the rolled out dough and gently rolled back over with a plain rolling pin to push the mat into the dough. Lift the sheet off carefully and cut out as normal.

I have a large rabbit cutter that looks quite cute with a halved marshmallow pressed on to the baked biscuit to give a bunny tail. Much easier than trying to pipe a bunny face!
If you are a cookie cutter addict you could create quite an Easter menagerie.
I am putting this post forward for the April 2014  We Should Cocoa Challenge managed by Choclette over at Chocolate Log Blog. This month's challenge is being guest hosted by blogger Rachel Cotterill who has chosen Easter as the theme. You will find a round up of all the entries on her site and Choclette's at the end of the month.

It also seems very appropriate for the April Biscuit Barrel Challenge as this month they are focusing on FUN. More information for biscuit lovers can be found on Laura's blog I'd Much Rather Bake Than

Happy munching!

Easter Baking from Germany, Aachener Poschweck

If you are looking for an alternative sweet yeasted bread to our regular hot cross buns then this is a delicious option. The loaf is sweetly scented with vanilla and would suit anyone who finds the traditional bun spices not to their taste.

The texture of the loaf is quite light as it is not too rich in butter but it has 3 egg yolks that add a little brioche like texture. The novelty of the loaf for me was the inclusion of sugar cubes. These melt somewhat as it bakes creating syrupy and mildly crunchy pockets. The cubes would have softened more if I had not added them a little late in the process, having managed to forget them until after the first rise. The cubes become quite tender though so do not be put off at the thought that you will be biting into rock hard sugar cubes.

In addition to the vanilla flavouring there is grated orange zest which I substituted with some finely chopped candied orange rind. There are also raisins and chopped almonds, not too many, so it is not heavy at all.

The recipe comes from a baking website I have followed for some years now called hefe und mehr. Do not be put off by the German blog title, all the recipes appear in both German and English languages. There is a charming story to the bread that the bakers used to have to give it away to their customers at Easter, what a lovely tradition that was for the customers!

The recipe was actually posted last year and can be found here: Aachener Poschweck

Do have a look at recent posts though as you will find even more great breads for Easter such as a chocolate version of the Italian Colomba Pasquale and the recipe writing is very detailed and informative.

The final loaf is quite large but keeps well, and is perfect with morning coffee or afternoon tea.

You know the Americans with their messed about donuts, muffins and brownies, and the French with their macaroons and chi chi meringues have stolen the baking limelight of recent years but it is time we started to look closer at Germany, they have some absolute gems in their repertoire.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hartland's Sunday Farmers Market, North Devon

Hartland's Sunday farmers markets are back and as evidenced by today's turn out they are buzzing, despite of, or perhaps helped by, a very drizzly Sunday morning. I only managed to get to a couple last year but this market is quite a treasure and well worth regular trips. You could even see it as North Devon's version of the London Borough market.

There was lots to try and buy.

Sabins Artisan Roasters
Totally new to me was Sabins Artisan Coffee Roasters from Cornwall. I love good coffee and consider the hour long drive from Bideford to Exeter to be pretty much justified by the great coffee served at Devon Coffee.  I have often read the quality of coffee deteriorates rapidly after it has been roasted and that obtaining freshly roasted beans is critical to a perfect cup. Well these beans were only roasted a few days ago, so this is my best chance to find out. Sabins had a range of coffees on offer to suit different tastes and were handing out generous sample cups to demonstrate how good their coffee was. The beans you purchased could be ground for you to suit your coffee making method, should you not have a grinder of your own.
Our current home brewed Moka method coffee is quite good, but now I have some rather special beans from Sabins, I am hoping to notch up the quality a bit!

If you were looking for something sweet to enjoy with your coffee you could find yourself in brownie heaven at The Green Brownie stall. There was a range to choose from including an interesting sounding marmalade version. The traditional plain and chocolate chip flavours are in the range as well as chilli and salted caramel. I think I saw the very seasonal cadbury cream egg version on the table too. For more information take a look at their web site: The Green Brownie or follow them on Twitter @GreenBrownieBar .

Another sweet treat could be found at Caprine Capers who sell a wide range of chocolates where all the cream used in the confections comes form their own herd of goats. I purchased some of their 'Plain Jane' truffles, a rich and full flavoured chocolate ganache.

If you were looking for some breakfast ingredients there were some rather good sausages to be purchased and we came away with two different sorts of 'plain' pork sausage but there were many flavoured ones to choose from. I have failed to note down the supplier of the chipolata packs but these were very good. Again samples were available to help you choose.
The Red Dog Bakery were there with a wide range of sourdough loaves. I chose this fine looking boule which went very well with some cheese for lunch.
If you were shopping for a Sunday roast there was quite a good range of quality meat to choose from and a rather inspiring vegetable stall selling organic produce. I came away with some Rudolph potatoes and a rather gorgeous looking long pepper with which to make some more chilli jam.
There was more on offer including a cheese seller, duck eggs, a range of wild garlic products, and the market organisers put on a cafe serving teas coffees and cooked breakfasts. The event takes place under cover of the village hall and has a lovely community atmosphere. On a brighter day you might make a day of it going for bracing walks or perhaps just adjourn to the local pub.

The market is held on the first Sunday of the month from April to September. Doors open at 10am. To keep up with news on the market follow them on Twitter: @Hartlandfarmkt, and for directions see the  North Devon site.

The Woolsery WI group have done a write up of their visit here: what we bought,where you will see other produce I have not mentioned here. 

I am marking the calendar up now to make sure I do not miss the next one.