Posts Tagged ‘foodandwine’

Give Some Time And Make Some Christmas Sweets

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

In this festive period, we have been asked out to various families for drinks, or the kids out to parties.  And the question always is what to give people in a period of giving.  So yesterday, the kids and I spent a happy day making sweets, much as we have done before.  So there was a kitchen full or sugar, ground almonds and the smell of chocolate.  Our clothes were covered in the light white snow of icing sugar and there was a healthy crunch of caster sugar beneath our feet on the kitchen tiles.

Our Kitchen Table Covered In Homemade Sweets

Our Kitchen Table Covered In Homemade Sweets

But why bother, when you can buy sweets in the shops.  And where they are way cheaper as well – excluding the ingredients, our time would cost each sweet at about 50p, and that’s sweet and not box of sweets.  The answer is in part that they taste much nicer as we use better ingredients like organic Fairtrade sugar, and are much more generous in the luxury components like chocolate and vanilla.  But also, it is the giving of our time.

In an age where everyone claims to be so time poor, giving excuses like I am far too busy to play with my children or cook a meal from scratch or to make sweets or bake, what is more generous than giving over some time to make something for friends and family.  And they taste pretty damn delicious as well.  Think if I were a hedge fund manager or big corporate fat cat, I could perhaps even get the cost per sweet up to £18 or more per chunk of fudge – think how generous my time would be then.

So I say, please give some time and make something for your friends and family and show how generous you can be by releasing some of your precious time to show how much you love and care.

Enough of that and down to the nitty-gritty, we made marzipan kugeln (or marzipan balls dipped in milk chocolate), peppermint creams (shaped as circles and stars and dipped in chocolate), milk chocolate shapes (Merry Christmas tablets, santas and stars), vanilla fudge and chocolate fudge.  There was something about the fudge that made it extra soft and velvety this year and less crystalline and tablet like.  I think it was the patience and extra diligence over the stirring, but it could just have been the recipe, which was tweaked for the ingredients I had to hand.

Homemade Chocolate Fudge

900g / 2lb caster sugar
100g / 3¼oz unsalted butter
1 large tin of evaporated milk (410g/ 14½oz)
¼ of evaporated milk tin of cold water
250g / 9oz milk chocolate

Prepare a tin, by lining the base with some baking parchment.  We use a 2cm (½ inch) deep pan that is 30cm by 20cm (12 inch x 8 inch).

Put the caster sugar, unsalted butter, evaporated milk and cold water into a heavy bottomed pan.  Put the pan over a medium heat and with a wooden spoon stir the mixture until it is fully dissolved.  While the sugar mixture is melting, melt the milk chocolate over a pan of boiling water, then when melted switch off but keep warm by keeping over the pan.

Turn up the heat a tad and let the sugar mixture boil rapidly, stirring consistently all the while.  When the mixture reaches the soft-ball stage (114C/238F), remove from the heat immediately.  I reckon this part takes around 20 minutes, but many books seem to claim it is much quicker.  Now you need to vigorously stir the mixture until it starts to thicken and begins to become rough – this takes 10 to 15 minutes and is quite tiring on the old arms.

Pour the fudge mixture into the baking tray, smooth over with a spatula.  Then using a sharp knife, cut the fudge into whatever sized cubes you want.

Leave to cool for 3 hours, then turn out of the baking tray, break off the fudge pieces, eating a few along the way to ensure the taste and texture are spot on, then put into an airtight container or some pretty gift boxes for pressies.

Homemade Chocolate Fudge In Gift Box

Homemade Chocolate Fudge In Gift Box

Recipe For A Thoroughly Modern Vegetarian Balti

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

Once in a while, I really need to go without meat of any form and I am going through one of those patches at the moment.  So I have tweaked my Chicken Balti Recipe from earlier this year to be more tofu friendly and so usable as a vegetarian dish. At the same time, I have simplified the spices in the recipe to make the whole thing a bit quicker; if you want to mix the spice blend from scratch, I have put the spices as a note to the whole recipe. Now it is something that you can whizz up quickly at the end of the day and keep the whole family happy – for a short while as well.

Vegetarian Tofu Balti

Vegetarian Tofu Balti

Stage 1: the smooth Balti tomato sauce

3tbsp sunflower oil
1 medium onion (125g / 4½oz), roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2cm fresh ginger, grated finely
2tsp Steenbergs Balti curry powder
150g / 4½oz chopped tomatoes

Firstly, we need to make the base balti sauce. Add the sunflower oil to a heavy bottomed pan and heat to sizzling hot. Add, then stir fry the onion and garlic until translucent which will take about 3 – 4 minutes. Add the fresh ginger and stir once. Add the Steenbergs Balti Curry Powder and stir in, turning for about half a minute, making sure it does not stick to the pan. Finally add the chopped tomatoes and simmer gently for about 5 minutes.

Blitz the sauce either with a hand held blender or take out and pulse in a Magimix until smooth. Set aside until later.

Stage 2: the Balti stir fry

3tbsp sunflower oil
500g / 1lb 2oz Quorn or tofu, cut into 2cm x 2cm cubes
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped into 1cm x 1cm pieces
150g / 5oz onion, finely chopped
150g / 5oz button mushrooms, chopped in half or quarters
3tsp Steenbergs vegetable curry powder
2tbsp chopped tomatoes
1tsp Steenbergs garam masala
100ml / 3½ fl oz / ½ cup water
Handful chopped fresh coriander leaves

Heat the oven to 100C / 212F. Add half of the sunflower oil to a wok and heat until smoking hot. Stir fry the Quorn or tofu in batches until lightly browned. Put the cooked Quorn and tofu into the warmed oven. When complete, clean the wok.

Add the remainder of the sunflower oil to the wok and heat until hot and smoking. Add the green peppers, chilli and button mushrooms and stir fry for 4 – 5 minutes, stirring constantly, making sure it does not burn and is fried well. Tip in the vegetable curry powder and stir through twice, then add the smooth balti tomato sauce and mix in plus the 2 tablespoons of chopped tomatoes. Heat until simmering, then add the water and reheat to a simmer, mixing all together. Cook on a gentle simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the cooked Quorn or tofu pieces and mix together. Add the garam masala. Cook for a further 10 minutes. About 2 minutes before the end add the chopped fresh coriander and stir through.

Serve hot with naan, plus we like dhal with it.

Spice blends for those doing the spices from scratch:

Spice mix for Balti sauce (1)

½tsp cumin seeds
½tsp coriander seeds
¼tsp fennel seeds
½tsp chilli powder
½tsp Fairtrade turmeric

For these, mix together then either grind iun an electric coffee grinder or break up in mortar and pastle.  Alternatively you could use powders rather than whole seeds.

Spice mix for Balti stir fry (2), instead of vegetable curry powder

½tsp cumin powder
1tsp paprika
¼tsp fenugreek powder
1tsp turmeric
¼tsp cinnamon powder
¼tsp cardamom powder

Recipe For Nurnberger Christmas Cookies – German Lebkuchen

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Following on from the spekulatius blog, we have been having fun trying to make German lebkuchen cookies.

There really is something Christmassy about the spices used in these Christmas biscuits – it’s that glorious mix of cinnamon, nutmeg and that extra richness from the cloves.  Everything about Christmas smells seems to revolve around cloves whether it is the Christmas cake, lebkuchen cookies or making your pomander.  And cloves are such a tricky spice that can completely overpower many spice blends, but seem to conjur up the right flavour for this festive period.

After a few goes at this recipe, this is where we have gotten to this year, but just like for the spekulaas I need to invest in some festive cookie shapes for next year.  Also, I think it would work well with a light chocolate glaze as an alternative to the icing sugar glaze.

Christmas Cookies

Christmas Lebkuchen Cookies

Lebkuchen Recipe

Working On The Lebkuchen Recipe

Working On The Lebkuchen Recipe

The ingredients bit:

250g / 9oz / 1¾ cups plus 1tbsp organic plain flour
85g / 3oz / ¾ cup ground almonds
2½tsp Steenbergs lebkuchen spice mix*
1tsp baking powder
½tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
175ml / ¾ cup clear honey (or golden syrup)
85g / 3oz softened unsalted butter
½tbsp lemon juice (this is lemon from ½ lemon)
½ lemon, finely grated zest (or combine to 1 lemon zested)
½ orange, finely grated zest
Some flaked or half blanched almonds (optional)

For the icing:

100g / 4oz / 1 cup icing sugar (confectioners’ sugar)
1 egg white, beaten

The recipe part:

Sieve the dry ingredients into a large bowl.

Warm the honey and butter in a pan over a low heat until the butter melts, then pour these into the flour mixture.  Add the lemon juice and lemon & orange zest.  Mix well with a hand held whisk until the dough is throughly combined.  Cover and leave to cool overnight, or for at least 2 hours. to let the flavours meld together and work that festive magic.

Heat oven to 180C/ 350F / Gas Mark 4.

Roll the lebkuchen dough in your hands into around 25 balls, each 3cm wide (1 inch wide), then flatten each one slightly into a disc.  Into the centre of the discs, place an almond flake. 

Divide the lebkuchen mixture between 3 baking trays lined with baking parchment, or ideally with an edible baking paper, with a decent amount of room for them to expand into.

Bake for 13 – 15 mins, or until when touched lightly no imprint remains, then cool on a wire rack.  While still warm, glaze the lebkuchen with the icing glaze, made as below.

Brush The Lebkuchen With Glazing Icing

Brush The Lebkuchen With Glazing Icing

While the cookies are baking, make your glazing icing: mix together the icing sugar and egg white to form a smooth, runny icing.

Brush the top of each biscuit with the glazing icing.  Leave to dry out.  I then glazed the top of the icing to give the lebkuchen a shinier lustre, but this is optional.

For the glaze, I took 100g (½ cup) caster sugar and 50ml (¼ cup) of water, melting these in a pan.  Then, I boiled the mix to 90C/200F, when I added 15g (1 tablespoon) of icing sugar.  This glaze was then bushed over the icing.  Granted that it is extra fussy, but then it is Christmas.

You should ideally, allow these Christmas cookies to mellow.  To do this, you should store the lebkuchen in an airtight container for a day or two to allow the flavours to mellow and the cookies to become softer.  To improve the flavours, you could include a few pieces of sliced orange or lemon, but make sure that they are not touching the lebkuchen as this will make them soggy and change the fruit every day to stop them going stale or mouldy.

* To make your own lebkuchen spice mix: ¼tsp ground cloves, ½tsp allspice powder, ½tsp nutmeg powder, 1¼tsp cinnamon

Recipe For Speculaas Biscuits – A Dutch Christmas Treat

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

One of my favourite Christmas cookies are spekulatius biscuits, or speculaas as they are called in the Netherlands.  I remember we always used to get a special parcel from Lebkuchen Schmidt in Nürmberg from my Granny.  In amongst all the beautiful tins and lebkuchen would be a few packs of their spekulatius cookies.  I loved their different shapes.

Then yesterday, our children had friends around before the School Christmas Disco, so to give them something creative to do between the pronouncements of “we’re bored – when is the party”, I made some spiced cookie dough using our Steenbergs koekkruidden spice mix and left the kids to cut out shapes.  Here are the recipes we tried; they are remarkably simple to make and the spice mix brings on those classic clove heavy aromas of the festive season.

Speculaas recipe – version 1

A Few Speculaas On A Plate

A Few Speculaas On A Plate

Ingredients

200g / 7oz self-raising flour
100g / 3½ oz light brown caster sugar
100g / 3½ oz softened butter
2-3 tbsp full milk
3tsp koekkruiden spices*
½ tsp baking powder
Zest of half an orange

For the top:

1 egg white, beaten
3tsp light brown caster sugar
2tbsp flaked almonds 

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F. Grease a baking tray.

Mix together all the ingredients in a mixer or blender until throughly mixed together.  Shape the dough into a ball and cover the dough ball with clingfilm and set aside for 1 hour in a cool place.

Flour a work surface and press the dough into an even, flat layer.  Using a cutter, cut shapes from the dough and place on the greased baking tray.

Brush with the egg white, then sprinkle with light brown caster sugar and flaked almonds on top of each speculaas biscuit.

Bake for 14-18 minutes and the biscuits are turning a slightly darker shade of brown. Remove from the baking sheet and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

Speculaas Recipe – Version 2

This recipe for St Nicholas Spiced Shortbread is based on a recipe from Elisabeth Luard’s excellent book – “European Festival Food”.  In it, Elisabeth Luard writes “Speculaas moulds themselves are made of wood – traditionally beech, pear, or walnut – shallow and relief-carved on the same principle as those used for Scottish shortbread.  They are usually 6 – 12 ins/15 – 30cm long and feature the Bishop himself, his donkey, or his servant Black Peter.  Smaller ones might be evergreen leaves and Christmas wreaths or little figures of children.”  We had none of these so just used normal cookie cutters, but I might invest in something for next year as these are really easy to make.

Round Christmas Cookies

Round Christmas Cookies - Speculaas

Ingredients

250g / 8½ oz self raising flour
125g / 4½ oz light brown caster sugar
3tsp koekkruiden spice mix*
50g / 1¾ oz ground almonds
100g / 3½ oz softened butter
1 egg, lightly whisked
1tbsp full milk

For the top:

1 egg white, beaten
3tsp light brown caster sugar
Flaked almonds
 (I bashed them a bit in a mortar and pestle to make them a better shape)

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 350F. Grease a baking tray.

Mix together all the ingredients in a mixer or blender until throughly mixed together.  I used the “K” blade on the Kenwood Mixer.  Shape the dough into a ball and cover the dough ball with clingfilm and set aside for 1 hour in a cool place.

Flour a work surface and press the dough into an even, flat layer.  Using a cutter, cut shapes from the dough and place on the greased baking tray.

Brush with the egg white, then sprinkle with light brown caster sugar and flaked almonds on top of each speculaas biscuit.

Bake for 14 – 18 minutes and the cookies are turning a slightly darker shade of brown. Remove from the baking sheet and allow to cool on a cooling rack.

* To make your own koekkruidden spice mix: ½tsp ground cloves, ½tsp allspice powder, 1tsp cardamom powder, 1tsp cinnamon

My Most Well Worn Cookbooks

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

I don’t know whether it is when you really learned how to cook that determines what are your favourite books, or whether some books are just better than others.  However, I noticed recently how I still keep on going back to a few cookery books that I have simply had for ages.  They are really well worn, with the stains of tried and tested dishes on really special and popular recipes.

For me, the classics that I still find irreplaceable are: “Floyd on France“, “Floyd on Britain and Ireland“, Sophie Grigson’s “Meat Course“, a few books by Maddhur Jaffrey’s “Indian Cookery”, and then I use Elisabeth Luard’s “European Peasant Cookery”, Reader’s Digest “Farmhouse Cookery”.  Then for Christmas and other special occasions, I turn to – Claire MacDonald’s “Celebrations” and Delia Smith’sChristmas” for inspiration.

I’ve got stacks of cookery books, but were I to go to a desert island these are the books that I would take with me, plus perhaps some books by Ray Mears, so I would be actually be able to build a shelter, forage for food and practise my survival skills.

What books could you not live without?

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
Yesterday, I had a cracking headache, so decided that a warm kitchen and some homely fare was what was needed.  I went out early to the Newby Hall Farm Shop and chose some decent looking braising steak that had a good colour, together with a lovely amount of marbling.  Then, I bought some cream, some shallots and some pears.  Back home, I put the radio on to listen to the football and cook.  It was a good listen as Newcastle drew with Manchester United – sometimes the luck falls the right way.

As for what to do with the beef, I decided to start with the idea of beouf à la bourguignonne, however our kids do not like onions, or at least they do not like to see the onions that they are given.  So a true beef bourguignon was not on the cards as these need some baby onions plus we need to dilute the winey flavours a little by adding some cream – that certainly does not make it less rich, but it does take some of the boozey notes out of the stew.

For those wondering about the pears, I stewed them in Madeira on the lines of my Pears In Rooibos, Vanilla And Saffron Recipe.

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

1.5kg / 3lb Braising steak, cut into 2cm cubes (the key is a decent amount of marbling on well-hung beef)
5 Slices streaky bacon, cut into 1cm cubes
25g /1 dessert spoon Unsalted butter
2tbsp Olive oil
250g / 8 oz / 5 large shallots, finely chopped
2 Garlic cloves, finely sliced
250g / 8 oz Button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
4tbsp + 1tbsp Olive oil
5 Sprigs of thyme
2 Bay leaves
1 Handful of “proper” fresh parsley, finely chopped (not the flat leaved stuff)
10 Red peppercorns
1 bottle / 750ml Red wine
200ml / 7 fl oz Madeira
Salt & black pepper, to taste
200ml / 7 fl oz cream (optional)

Preheat the oven to 160C/ 300F.

Ina a heavy bottomed frying pan, melt the unsalted butter and olive oil together.  When hot, add one-third of the steak and brown off, turning when a side has become sealed.  When the steak is sealed, transfer with a slotted spoon or fork to an ovenproof plate and keep warm in the oven.  Continue to brown off the steak pieces until all have been sealed. 

While you are browning the braising steak, prepare the stock.  In a heavy bottomed casserole, add the 4tbps of olive oil and heat up.  Over a medium heat, sweat the escallions (shallots) and garlic until translucent.  When cooked remove with a slotted spoon and place on an ovenproof dish and keep warm in the oven. 

Add a little extra olive oil if needed and heat up the oil, then tip in the button mushrooms and sauté in the olive oil.  Fry until lightly browned.

Take the cooked shallots and garlic and return these to the casserole, mixing into the browned mushrooms.  Add the red wine, Madeira, herbs, salt and spices.  Place a lid on the pot and heat up to simmering point.

Transfer the sealed braising steak to the casserole pot and heat the stock until simmering.  Take the casserole off the hob and transfer to the oven.  Cook for 3 hours.  At the end of the oven cook, remove from the oven and stir in the cream; this is optional as real boeuf bourguignon does not contain cream, but I like it.

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

North Yorkshire Beef Stew

A Truly British Cup Of Tea

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Taking all the information in my previous blog, here is my stab at how to make a cracking cup of tea:

1.  Fill the kettle with freshly-drawn cold water which is well mixed with oxygen (boiled water has lost much of oxygen). Oxygen is vital to bring out the taste and aroma.  When drawing from the tap, let the water run a bit first, so you do not get the slightly flat and stale water that is hanging around in the tap near the end of the faucet.

2.  Ceramic, china or earthenware teapots are the best for making teas – they keep warmer for longer and do not taint the organic tea.  Never ever bleach the teapot, even though some older books suggest adding bicarbonate of soda.

3.  Fill the tea-pot with boiling water to warm the tea-pot and so prevent the brew from cooling too quickly then pour out as more water comes to the boil and add the tea leaves.  Alternatively, quarter fill the tea pot with water, then place into a microwave and heat at full power for 1 minute, then pour out as the water in the kettle comes to the boil and add the tea leaves.  If you are making a mug of tea, you should warm the mug in the same way as you would warm the teapot; in fact, it is even more important, since mugs usually have no lids so loose heat even more rapidly than a tea-pot with lid.  The art is timing the heating of the teapot with the spooning in of the tea leaves and the pouring over of the freshly boiled water; I tend to premeasure the tea leaves into a ramekin so you can just tip them all in at the right moment rather than hurredly measuring them out at the crucial moment and missing the pot with some of the leaves in the panic.

4.  For a 1136ml or traditional quart-sized tea pot, add 6 heaped teaspoons or 15g (½oz) of loose leaf tea to the pot; this equates to 1 heaped teaspoon per mug plus 1 for the pot, where a quart-sized tea pot does 5 mugs.  For a 225ml mug (i.e. a mug with volume of 1 cup), add a heaped teaspoon or 2.6g to the permanent tea filter.  A teaspoon roughly equates to a teabag, which is usually 2.5 – 3.0g, with the higher average weight compensating for the slowing down of infusion caused by the tea bag filter paper itself.

5.  As for the tea, books and whole businesses are based on getting the right teas for the tea drinker.  In a nutshell, tea leaves are the best, rather than tea bags.  Orthodox teas are better than CTC style teas.  Blended teas, like an English Breakfast or Irish Breakfast, are also great as they provide consistency of general flavour and colour profile, enabling you to leave the problems of blending the appropriate flavours to others with more time on their hands.  However, if you get the chance to blend your own teas, have a crack at it as it is not as hard as most tea businesses will tell you; see my blogs on blending breakfast teas.  I, also, change the leaf size depending on the time of day, so would go for a small leafed blend of 2 – 3mm in the morning, but let the tea leaves increase in size as the day goes on to around 6 – 7mm; this gives me strength and colour in the morning, then more floweriness and flavour as the day progresses and my taste buds are able to understand the subtleties in tea; later in the afternoon, I switch to lighter teas like a Darjeeling, China or Ceylon tea and by late afternoon, I veer towards Darjeeling or green teas.

6.  Fill the kettle with more freshly-drawn cold water, pour away the warm water in tea-pot just as the water is coming to the boil.  Add the tea leaves.  Pour the new water into the pot as it boils, because off-the-boil water makes very dull tea.  At this stage, the water will be in the range of 96 – 98C (205 – 210F).

7.  Give the tea leaves a quick stir with a warmed teaspoon.

8.  Infuse for 3 – 5 minutes.  A quick brew never gets the full flavour from the organic tea leaves, whereas a long brew is astringent.  This part depends a lot on the type of tea leaves you are using as well as your own tea flavour preferences, i.e. I like a stronger brew, but use a tea blend with little astringency in the brew, so can steep for 5 minutes, but others recommend 3 – 4 minutes.  At the end of the brew, the temperature of the infusion should be in the range of 70 – 80C (160 – 175F), and ideally at the top end of the range.

9.  Add 25 – 30ml (1 fl oz) of milk per 225ml  mug (a mug with volume of 1 cup).  Make sure the milk is at room temperature then add it first (not second), because milk does not superheat as much if added at this stage, so keeping the taste and mouth feel of the milk right.  It must be real milk and should at least be semi-skimmed in standard, never homogenised, and if using classic milk, the cream should be poured off the top into a jug to leave the milk below.  Others, for example Tony Benn and George Orwell, say add milk afterwards because you can regulate the amount of milk you add much better that way.  There is no answer to this core disagreement amongst tea drinkers and never the twain shall meet, i.e. it is really just a matter of taste and habit.

10.  Leave to cool until the tea is around 60 – 65C (140 – 150F), then start to drink, but do not slurp as it is uncouth.  Do not leave until the tea becomes too cold, with an upper limit of 17½ minutes, and lower temperature limit of 50C (122F).

11.  Sit back, relax and enjoy!  The best place is where no-one will hassle you and annoy you, so you can have a little bit of peace.

Please note this is my template for making a good old cup of strong black tea and does not work for green or white teas, nor more delicate Darjeelings or oolongs.  Therefore, you should use it as a template and through practise learn how to make your cup of tea, as yours will always be the best, since it will take into account your favourite type of tea, your local water and your own taste preferences.  In other words, there is no perfect way of making tea, but there are some no-nos, and, as in most walks of life, practise makes perfect.

The Perfect Cuppa

Friday, November 18th, 2011

The other day I listened to James May chatting on Radio 5 Live about the new series of Man Lab and in it he discussed the perfect cup of tea. As in everything in life, I agreed with some of what James May said, but disagreed with other parts, for example he suggested using the same water for heating the teapot for reboiling and using to brew the actual tea, but I insist that you should use freshly drawn water for the tea. This is important as you need the best water possible to make an infusion of water. My suggestion is you boil the kettle as there is always old water in the kettle, pour that water into the teapot, then draw some clean, fresh water and boil that; pour out the water from the kettle, add the tea leaves and then pour over the just boiled water. James May’s chat then brought to mind a fun piece of research done by Northumbria University that claimed to have worked out a formula for the perfect cuppa – what a load of bunkum!

And also as anyone who likes The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy knows that: “Tea is considered a delicacy in many parts of the Galaxy. However, the proliferation of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Nutrimatic Machines has made it very hard to get a good cup of tea.” And tea is used to drive the imporbability drive of the Starship the Heart of Gold. So making a good cup of tea is of vital importance to the universe.

But the beauty of tea is that it is personal and how you make tea is best for you, i.e. there is no perfect way to make tea. That having been said there are some no-nos and some better ways of making tea. Then some of us have our foibles, for example I use a tea cosy – now that is seriously unmanly, but I insist it keeps the temperature up high enough to get the best out of your tea leaves. So for what it is worth, I thought I would review some old books and how they told you to make tea, then give you my own version of the perfect cup of tea.

Mrs Beeton On Making Tea (1861)

To quote from Mrs Beeton: “There is very little art in making good tea; if the water is boiling, and there is no sparing of the fragrant leaf, the beverage will almost invariably be good. The old-fashioned plan of allowing a teaspoonful to each person, and one over, is still practised. Warm the teapot with boiling water; let it remain for two or three minutes for the vessel to become thoroughly hot, then pour it away. Put in the tea, pour in from ½ to ¾ pint of boiling water, close the lid, and let it stand for the tea to draw from 5 to 10 minutes then fill up the pot with water. The tea will be quite spoiled unless made with water that is actually boiling, as the leaves will not open, and the flavour will consequently be colourless and tasteless,- in fact, nothing but tepid water.”

Comments: I have tried the Mrs Beeton method and the tea you come out with is strange in that it is much more bitter yet weaker than a good brew I would expect – I guess that the long brew pulls out the astringency in the tea leaves while the final dilution cause the tea to lose some of its body. I reckon this shows the change in our lifestyles as perhaps her recipe was based on making a breakfast tea with China tea leaves, like Kintuck, rather than the stronger Assam based tea blends.

Edward Smith on tea in “Foods” (1873)

Edward Smith writes some 29 pages on tea as a food compared to almost nothing written by food writers nowadays. He suggests for a fine thin tea to “infuse it from ten to fifteen minutes; but if common tea be selected the infusion should not stand more than five to ten minutes. In all cases the pot should be kept quite warm, and covered with a cosy.” This method brews a frighteningly strong tea that is really bitter, so while Mr Smith was regarded as a guru on food, this is a disaster of a way to make tea.

Jospeh M Walsh in “Tea-Blending As A Fine Art” (1896)

“In the proper preparation of Tea for use, therefore, the object should be to extract as little of the tannin as possible and as much theine and volatile oil as can be extracted without permitting the infusion to boil or overdraw.  To best obtain these most desirable results, put the requisite quantity of Tea leaves in a covered china or earthenware pot – all tin and metal vessels should be avoided – and pour in freshly boiling water that has been boiling for at least three minutes, and then allow the vessel to stand where it will keep hot, WITHOUT boiling, for from eight to ten minutes before serving, according to the variety of Tea used.”

“In moderate strength it requires about one teaspoonful of good tea to a half pint of boiling water and an ordinary half teacupful of leaves to every quart of boiling water, the latter making a fairly strong infusion for five persons.  China and Japan Teas require from eight to ten minutes to draw thoroughly, the former requiring but little milk and sugar…India, Ceylon and Java Teas generally should not be allowed to draw more than five to seven minutes at the outside after the boiling water has been poured on…, while the addition of an extra quantity of both milk and sugar greatly improves their drinking qualities.”

Comments: Mr Walsh’s teas are brewed very strong and for much longer than I would dare go for, resulting in a bitter brew.  However, his comments are interesting as it is the only book that I have found that tackles tea making in the 19th Century America.

Elizabeth Hughes Hallett “The Hostess Book” on “A Fireside Tea” (1937)

“But first of all make sure you can make a good cup of tea. When made properly it is most refreshing and stimulating, but when badly done it acts as poison to the system.

“The real secret is to have the water freshly boiled. Water which has been standing at the side of the fire for some time time is stale. The teapot must be kept clean and sweet, and an occassional scald with boiling soda water will ensure its freshness.

“The amount of tea to use depends greatly on its quality. One teaspoonful to each person and one to the pot is the old-fashioned rule, but with a good blend of tea a teaspoonful will be found to be sufficient for two cups.

“To make the tea pour a little boiling water into the teapot and let it stand for few minutes. When thoroughly heated, empty and dry it. Pour the required amount of tea into the pot and pour in boiling water. Cover with a cosy and let it stand in a warm place for 3 or 4 minutes. Do not allow it to stand too long, otherwise it would be bitter and harmful. Serve according to taste with sugar, cream or milk, and when one is especially tired the addition of a slice of lemon will prove most exhilarating, without milk.”

Comments: this is pretty much how I make my British cuppa, except that I would steep for 5 minutes and not 3 – 4 minutes, and would say go for freshly drawn water that has been freshly boiled, rather than “water freshly boiled”. It is interesting to note that more scientific analysis later agrees with Mrs Hallett’s brewing time.

George Orwell & The Perfect Cup Of Tea (1946)

George Orwell (this is the literary part of this blog) wrote about tea in 1946 for The Evening Standard.

In summary, George Orwell key points are: (i) Indian and Sri Lanka tea only, which I would agree with, although African tea is good as well; China tea is too weak for a general British/Irish cuppa; (ii) make tea in china or earthenware teapots; (iii) the pot should be warmed beforehand but as most of us do not have Agas or a range, it should be with boiling water and not on your stove; (iv) tea leaves should be straight into the pot, i.e. not tea bags or in infusers etc, although the big plastic infusers are great and really practical, but if you can free the leaves, let them float about free, happy and easy; (v) give the tea leaves a good stir; (vi) use boiling water; (vii) pour off the cream from the milk first; (viii) about 6 heaped teaspoons for a quart sized teapot, which equates to about 1 heaped teaspoon per cup, which is how we brew it at home; (ix) tea should be taken in a mug.

On the downside, George Orwell does not talk about the water, which is crucial to tea making, and he is of the “milk-in-second” school, which is the cause of much contention.

McGee On Making Tea (1984 & 2004)

In Harold McGee’s seminal work on “Food & Cooking“, Mr McGee devotes some space to tea and coffee. To quote, the key points: “In the West, a relatively small quantity of tea leaves – a teaspoon per 6 oz cup/ 2.5gm per 180ml – is brewed once, for several minutes, then discarded”; “The infusion time ranges from 15 seconds to 5 minutes, and depends on two factors. One is leaf size; small particles and their great surface area require less time for the contents to be extracted. The other is water temperature…black teas are infused in water close to the boil, and relatively briefly.”; “In a typical 3-5 minute infusion of black tea, about 40% of the tea solids are extracted into the water. Caffeine is rapidly extracted, more than three quarters of the total in the first 30 seconds, while the larger phenolic complexes come out much more slowly.”

As for serving tea, Mr McGee writes: “Once tea is properly brewed, the liquid should be separated from the leaves immediately; otherwise extraction continues and the tea gets harsh. All kinds of tea are best drunk fresh; as they stand, their aroma dissipates, and their phenolic compounds and components react with dissolved oxygen and each other, changing the color and taste.

“Tea is sometimes mixed with milk. When it is, the phenolic compounds immediately bind to the milk proteins, become unavailable to bind in our mouth surfaces and salivary proteins, and the taste becomes less astringent. It’s best to add hot tea to warm milk, rather than vice versa; that way the milk is heated gradually and to a moderate temperature, so it’s less likely to curdle.”

Comments: the idea of warm milk is curious, although I agree milk that is at room temperature is better than straight from the fridge. Also, some mention but not much detail about types of tea and origins. McGee does talk about water and suggests it should have a moderately acidic pH of 5, rather than the neutral to alkaline of most municipal water, and he also indicates that Volvic is a good source of mineral water for tea making. I will come back to water in a later blog.

Northumbria University & The Perfect Way To Brew Tea (2011)

Northumbria University was commissioned by Cravendale, the milk producer, to do some research into the perfect cup of tea, which unsurprisingly elicited quite a lot of PR (see http://atomicspin.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/hard-hitting-research-from-cravendale/ and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8577637/How-to-make-the-perfect-cup-of-tea-be-patient.html).

In overview, Northumbria University claims the best brew is as follows:

1. Add 200ml of freshly boiled water to your tea bag (in a mug).
2. Allow the tea bag to brew for 2 minutes.
3. Remove the tea bag.
4. Add 10ml of milk.
5. Wait 6 minutes before consumption for the cuppa to reach its optimum temperature of 60 degrees centigrade.

They even helpfully created a formula for all of this (which must make it right):

TB + (H2O @ 100°C) for 2mins BT + C (10ml) 6 mins BT = PC (@ OT of 60°C)

where TB = teabag, BT = brewing time, C = Cravendale milk, OT = optimum temperature and PC = perfect cuppa.

As senior lecturer, Ian Brown, explained: “When enjoying a cup of tea, our palette requires a balance between bitterness and sweetness. Milk quantities and brewing time were key factors studied throughout our investigation into the perfect brew.

“Prominent sensory attributes of black tea are its bitterness and its dry, ‘puckery’ mouth feel, also known as astringency. Our findings show that 10ml is the preferred amount of milk for our cuppas, due to its ability to balance natural bitterness and allow a smoother taste sensation.”

My comments are as follows: firstly, the best tea is not from a teabag, but from loose leaf tea leaves and this shows a similar social change as that between Mrs Beeton and Mrs Hallett, i.e. a shift from loose leaf tea to bagged tea and in their case from China to India-style teas; secondly, the tea leaves must be brewed for longer to get all the flavours to come out – 2 minutes is way too short and 5 minutes is about right; thirdly, Cravendale tastes metallic to my taste buds and I go for full fat milk and remove the cream first rather than semi-skimmed – Cravendale is homogenised which is the worst type of milk; fourthly, always brew your tea in a teapot then (in my opinion and the UK is divided on this) milk in first; fifthly, other than the quality of the tea leaves, water quality is probably the most crucial factor and where is the mention of that.

What I did find interesting was the idea of a limit on when you must drink your tea by 17.5 minutes, and the fact that 66% say they make the best tea, followed by your spouse at 16%, dads at 4.5% and lastly mums at 2.1%, which just proves the best tea is how you are used to having it brewed for you.

[PS: Supposedly, this unbiased piece of pretend research, which you can download via this link, says that Cravendale, which sponsored the research, makes the best milk for your cup of tea – well I never].

James May’s Perfect Cuppa (2011)

Within James May’s new book for his series Man Lab, he has a few pages on brewing tea alongside vital stuff like how to score a penalty and making a fish finger sandwich.

James May cites a piece of work by Dr Andrew Stapley of Loughborough University that suggests that George Orwell was overdoing his tea strength and that you should revert to the old maxim of “one teaspoon per person and one for the pot”, that milk should go in first and that sugar can enhance the flavour of tea so long as it does not dominate the flavour. However, we use a quart sized teapot and I put in 5 – 6 teaspoons, so I reckon George Orwell was on the money.

Dr Stapley’s research is published by The Royal Society of Chemical Engineers as their “official” way of chemically brewing a perfect cuppa. In it, there are a couple of interesting points: firstly, they talk about drawing “fresh, soft water and place in kettle to boil” as previously boiled water has lost some of its dissolved oxygen, which is needed to bring out the tea flavour, while hard water tends to give rise to tea scum; he suggests filtering hard water and avoiding bottled waters for the same reason (note that McGee advises Volvic as well as bottled waters even though these do tend to have a high mineral content); secondly, he suggests preheating the ceramic teapot in a microwave by adding a quarter of the cup of water to the teapot and placing on full power for a minute; thirdly, they address the touchy subject of the timing of the milk – Dr Stapley’s research suggests that if adding the milk second, the milk is overheated for a few seconds, so causing milk proteins to denature and clump together, so making for a less pleasant cup of tea – at this stage the tea temperature should have fallen to 75C. Then as regards sugar, this depends on 2 factors: (i) the tea you are drinking as some tea blends are much more bitter than others; (ii) taste as in the end it is your brew and your taste buds, so Dr Stapley suggests adding some sugar moderates the natural astringency of tea (the milk also dampens the natural bitterness of tea). Dr Stapley, also, explains that what you are seeking is to balance the polyphenolic compounds being extracted during the brewing process as these give the colour and some of the flavour in the cup, however longer brewing brings out the higher molecular tannins that have a bitter aftertaste; the caffeine infusion is largely complete in the first minute.

Finally, James May mentions that soft water is best, which I agree with and it is also the best for brewing beer, so this is why brewers used to clump together around good sources of soft water, e.g. Tadcaster. He also goes for a 3 minute brew, which is the minimum and I reckon should be increased to 5 minutes, but that is a matter of taste again. Then, there is milk in first, and drink at 60 – 65C which agrees with the Cravendale-Northumbria research (he actually writes 60C but I think he means to follow the Dr Stapley method of 60 – 65C). As for sugar, the suggestion is for white sugar only and not other types, which I guess is to keep the extra flavours being added reduced, but I use a natural caster sugar and that does not have too many molasses tastes coming through, so for me that is also fine.

My way of making tea will be explained in my next blog post.

Mint Choc Cupcakes

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Weren’t we all brought up on the luxury of After Eights or Elizabeth Shaw Mint Crisps or Matchmakers, those quintessentially 1970s pieces of sophistication?  Or was it just me?  So using our new mintier Organic Peppermint Extract, I decided to create these Mint Choc Cupcakes that bring together the luxury of chocolate cupcakes with a 1970s feel of mintiness coming from the peppermint flavours in the cake, chocolate topping and then sprinkled Matchmakers over the top.

Simple, delicious and so retro.

Mint Choc Cupcakes By Axel Steenberg

Mint Choc Cupcakes By Axel Steenberg

Mint Choc Cupcakes

80g / 2¾oz organic butter (at room temperature)
175g / 1 cup / 6oz Fairtrade caster sugar
1 large free range egg (at room temperature)
170g / 1 cup / 6oz organic self raising flour
1tbsp Fairtrade organic cocoa powder
100ml / ⅓ cup full fat milk
1tsp Steenbergs organic peppermint extract
150g / 5¼oz Fairtrade milk chocolate
50ml / ¼ cup double cream
¼tsp Steenbergs organic peppermint extract
Some Matchmakers or other crispy mint chocolate

1.  Preheat the oven to 160C / 320F.  Line a cupcake pan with 12 cupcake papers.

2.  Using an electric hand whisk cream together the butter and caster sugar until light.  Add the large egg and mix well.

3.  Add the self raising flour and cocoa in two halves and mix in thoroughly.  Add the milk and Steenbergs Organic Peppermint Extract until well mixed in.

4.  Divide the batter evenly between the cupcake papers.  Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until firm to touch.  Allow to cool for a couple of minutes then cool on a wire rack.  They must be totally cool before putting on the topping.

5.  Over a pan of boiling water, melt the milk chocolate in a heatproof bowl.  Allow to cool a little, then thoroughly mix in the cream, the Steenbergs organic peppermint extract and allow to cool and thicken.

6.  Spread the chocolate frosting neatly over the cupcakes, then decorate with broken Matchmakers or other peppermint crisp.

Lamb Stew With Rosemary & Lemon

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

I was pottering around the shops the other day and their was some good looking shoulder of lamb.  They called out to me “Cook me, take me”, so I asked the butcher for them and popped them in the basket.  Back at home, I found some lemons that need using up, picked some rosemary from the garden, then set to it. 

The key on this versatile stew is to cook long and slow, which gives time for the collagen and tougher bits on these cuts of lamb to break down, while the fat keeps the meat deliciously moist.  It  tastes even better if you cook it slowly one day, then come back to it the next night, when the flavours really do infuse throughout the meat.  The other thing is the temperature of 160C, since as the lamb gets to this temperature the collagen liquifies into gelatin, giving the meat that “melt-in-the-mouth” tenderness, as well as killing off any bugs that might be in the meat.

Lamb Stew With Rosemary & Lemon

2kg / 4½lb stewing lamb, ideally on the bone – shoulder is good
6tbsp olive oil
Juice of 3 lemons
1 glass of dry white wine
2tbsp fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
2 cinnamon quills
Salt & pepper

Prepare the lamb if it is shoulder by cutting off most of the meat and chopping into 2cm x 2cm (1 inch x 1 inch) cubes.  Keep some of the meat on the bone as this will become easy to cut off after cooking.  Put the meat pieces and bones into a large pot.

Add the olive oil, juice of the lemons and glass of white wine to the meat.

Add the cinnamon quills, chopped rosemary, one or two grinds of black pepper and a pinch of salt.  Give it all a stir around.

Lamb Stew Before Cooking

Lamb Stew Before Cooking

Put the oven on to 160C / 320F.  Put the lid onto the pot, then heat the meat over a gentle heat on the hob, and simmer for 30 minutes.  Open the lid, give the stew a stir, then replace the lid and put into the oven.  Cook for 2 – 3 hours.

Lamb Stew With Lemon And Rosemary

Lamb Stew With Lemon And Rosemary

Either eat straight away or the next day.  Serve with rice (we had saffron rice) and vegetables, then use some freshly baked bread to soak up any of the dripping on your plate.

Gorgeous and so, so very simple.