22 October, 2008

baking blind (and other cooking adventures)

Well, it's not gorgeous. It's not flawless. But it's a pastry shell, it smells gorgeous, and I never thought I'd see one of those coming out of my oven. It is from a recipe by my Totleigh tutor Tamasin Day-Lewis from her Tamasin's Kitchen Classics, and the proof of the tart will be in the eating, as they say. I am no baker, but my food writing week made me ashamed of how I indulge this weakness. Avery and I approached the various unfamiliar things like vanilla pods, icing sugar and tart pan with trepidation, and I must say she went off to the stable for her afternoon ride quite covered with raspberry seeds, up and down her wrists. I only saw it in the bus, and then it was too late to scrape her off. We really made a mess. And blind baking? What the hell is that? I put the pastry in the oven only to have Avery say diffidently, "Uh, Mummy, why is she saying to remove the foil and beans? What foil and beans?" Oh dear.

I had to google blind baking. Pathetic. Serves me right for not reading the recipe all the way through before I began.

Last night may have been our best dinner ever: two dishes I would be very grateful to have, and pay for, in a restaurant. Two dishes from my dear tutor, Orlando Murrin, from his very touching and also very useful cookbook, A Table in the Tarn: Living, Eating and Cooking in South-West France. I am always slightly nervous cooking something for the first time, and a bit taken aback to see how messy my kitchen gets when I'm not familiar with what I'm doing. Utensils everywhere! With practice, I will get these two recipes down with ease, because they're not difficult, they're just unfamiliar. I'd happily eat each of them every night for a month, but I don't think my cholesterol level could take it. Avery always orders her steak with no sauce whatever, so I was a bit nervy on that account as well, but she was intrigued enough by eating something invented by the great teacher she's heard so much about that she came bravely to the table.

As frustrating as it is for this American to try to cook with European instructions, I am going to reproduce this recipe exactly as Orlando has written it, and let my readers deal with conversions. I myself was not tortured by precision because it was not baking. Just be relaxed and know that the result will be worth the effort.

Orlando's Steak St Juery
(serves 6)

50g unsalted butter, softened, plus 10g extra
50g Roquefort cheese (we substituted Welsh goats cheese, brilliant)
1 shallot, chopped finely
3 tbsp Marsala or port (we used Marsala)
150ml beef or chicken stock (we used chicken)
2 tbsp creme fraiche
6 fillet steaks
a little olive oil and butter
handful of chopped toasted walnuts, flaked almonds and pinenuts (I had no walnuts)
chopped parsley

Mash the butter and cheese till smooth, or if you prefer, put in a small plastic bag and knead together through the plastic. Shape or press into 4 or 5 pieces, and refrigerate.

In the remaining butter in a small pan, fry the shallot for 3-4 minutes till transparent but not brown. Add the Marsala and reduce to a syrup, then the stock and reduce again to a syrupy consistency - it should be about 3 tbsp, bubbling with small tight bubbles. Set aside, still in the pan, and cover.

Season the steaks and fry for about 3 minutes per side in the oil and butter

Set aside to rest while you finished the sauce by bringing the reduced juices to the boil, then lowering the heat so the sauce stays warm but does not boil. Whisk in the butter-cheese mixture piece by piece to make a thickish, glossy sauce. Whisk in the creme fraiche.

Slice each steak on the diagonal into 3 thick slices and pour over the sauce. Sprinkle with the nuts and parsley and serve at once.


And that's it. I was disorganized and let one reduction burn, and another separate into part oil, part something else. You must pay attention! But the third time was the charm. I am not used to making sauces and it takes concentration. But this dish was simply SUPERB. Luxurious, unusual, and it left the house smelling like a real French restaurant. I was incredibly pleased, and Avery pronounced the steak "insanely good." But that was not all.

Orlando's Straw Potato Cakes
(serves six, he says, but we two ate them ALL)

2 medium potatoes, shredded into tiny matchsticks, using a mandolin or julienne slicer
1 shallot, chopped very finely
duck or goose fat, olive oil or clarified butter.

Because [Orlando says] there is only me in the kitchen cooking dinner, dishes have to be practical and achievable. This potato dish is so quick that it can be made while the meat rests. A few hours in advance you can peel the potatoes and julienne them; keep them under water.

When ready to cook, drain the potatoes thoroughly and squeeze as dry as you can on a towel - twisting and wringing as much as possible. Mix with the shallots and plenty of seasoning.

Heat 2 tbsp fat in a large frying pan and put in 3 handfuls of potato, shaping as rough circles. Moderate the heat if necessary, but after 3-4 minutes they should have started to stick together and the underside to go brown. Flip them over using a palette knife or spatula and cook the other side the same way. They will not be very tidy or regular but they will taste delicious.

Keep warm on a baking sheet and repeat with the next 3, adding a little more fat to cook in if necessary (usually it isn't). Serve as soon as possible.


I chortled a little over his use of the dreaded, forbidden word "delicious," (Tamasin uses it as well in her raspberry curd tart that Avery and I are working on today, chuckle). It's just a nice word.

These potato cakes are wickedly, sinfully, melt-in-your-mouth salty indulgence. And because I am obsessive-compulsive I didn't even use a tool to make my matchsticks. So satisfying to slice the potato thinly, then take off the very edge away so you have a flat surface, and stack up the slices. Then you can slice them thinly again and slice the whole stack in two and voila: matchsticks. Now, I found that I wanted to fry these cakes a little longer than I expected, so be flexible.

Well, we were in heaven. Between mouthfuls I said, "Aren't I clever," and Avery would chew for awhile and say, "You are so clever," then we both had to take a deep breath and say, "Actually, Orlando is very clever."

I deserved a really rich dinner because I had a tennis lesson in the afternoon: not just A tennis lesson, but a real pounding by my new instructor, Rocco, a meticulously groomed Brazilian man of intense athletic ability. It must be said that he has, as well, an endless supply of off-colour stories to shout at me as I'm trying to lift my toe, or have decent follow-through, or anything else to do with actual tennis. My God, he's strange. But then he would turn from these revelations to ask Avery what the title of her book was, and where did she go to school. The man simply appears to have no conversational governor! And since I could see I was improving my game by leaps and bounds, so I suppose my moral sanctity can take a little drubbing. But his cologne, good lord, the man must bathe in it, and it transferred itself inexorably via his helping hand on my racquet handle, and thence to my hand, where it remained indelibly through several hand washings. I reported this to John who said from some 3000 miles away, "As your husband, I so did not want to hear that."

It was a glorious day of blue sky overhead, falling orange and yellow leaves, a crisp breeze to keep me cool as I fended off my instructor. Tonight is swimming and diving, in the marvellously old-fashioned school pool, glass-roofed and elegant.

And tomorrow, after nearly a week away, my beloved returns. And the three of us head off in the Mini, packed to the gills and with a dish of macaroni and cheese at my feet, for a long weekend at the Gothic Temple. As you know, we're devoted to the Landmark Trust and this is a place we've been eyeing for many years, so it's going to be an adventure. We all need some time as a threesome to regroup; it's a funny dynamic being alone with a very companionable child for many days in a row. We get into our own conversational groove that then has to adjust when Father Comes Home. He's going to need all the peace he can get, after a dreadful business week in blistering sun and urban squalor. Poor man.

Before I close, I want to recommend to you a new blog, Roast Pork and Apple Snow, a new venture written by my Totleigh Barton compatriot Edward. It's a lovely combination of seasonal appreciation, recipes and Edward's musings on food, cooking and the examined life. You'll love it. We are all absurdly motivated and ambitious for our writing, after our week of intensive boot camp in Devon.

Well, the tart's ready to be assembled, so fingers crossed. I'll report results, if they're fit to print. I have faith in Tamasin, just not so much in... me.

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