09 December, 2008

conquering kitchen demons

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a certain type of person possesses a skill, he or she will look with contempt and scorn at another person who does not possess that skill. And not just look, mind you, but express that contempt and scorn quite readily, with apparent blindness to the possibility that there are things he or she is also not capable of doing. This is such an unpleasant human quality that I'm making it an early New Year's Resolution never to do it again, if I ever have.

The problem with the contempt and scorn school for me is (aside from the basic one that it makes me feel bad) that it stops me doing things I don't know how to do. I just crawl away into a safe dark place where I can carry on doing the things I already know how to do. And while that generally works out all right, since I can do a fair number of things, in my current mini-mid-life-crisis mode I don't want ANYTHING standing in the way of my getting something I really want.

As a result of all this analysis and a sudden decision to step up to the culinary plate, I resorted to the method that nearly always solves a problem for me: I found a friend. Yesterday I welcomed into my kitchen one Hannah Goodyear, of The Kitchen Queen, to help me overcome some of my most persistent kitchen fears. You know we all have them. I know a lot of people who are scared silly of a whole chicken. These same people will happily cook the much more intimidating version of this, the Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey, but would blanche and even faint at the notion of roasting a chicken every Sunday, for example. I know other people who would never consider gutting and filleting a whole fish. That would be me. For some reason, though, I feel no need to acquire this particular kitchen skill, whereas I do have a secret desire to be a butcher.

My particular kitchen terrors were, until yesterday, threefold: bread, fresh pasta and baking. All three of these areas seemed to me to involve a couple of areas in life where I am at my weakest: science and mathematics. I tend to avoid activities that require more than a passing acquaintance with either of these subjects, and I was absolutely certain that to bake a loaf of bread, make ravioli or produce a successful dessert, I would have to shake hands with not only scientific rules, but also NUMBERS.

Now, in this I was correct. But in my ambitious heart of hearts, I knew instinctively that all I really needed was a teacher. Until yesterday, everything I ever knew about cooking I learned by myself, just slogging along imitating other people's successes.

I speak from experience as a longtime teacher myself when I tell you that there are two sorts: the sort who revels in being smarter than other people, and the sort who remembers very well not knowing ANYTHING and just wants to help people out of their ignorance. There is room for both sorts: it can be surprisingly motivating, in a sick sort of way, to learn by fear and intimidation. But that's not the sort of person I wanted in my kitchen. Happily for me, I got Hannah. And so should you.

I found her in the way that people in the modern world find everything: by googling. "Cookery lessons London," got me to an array of cookery SCHOOLS. The trouble with an institution, however, is that you have to do things their way. You have to sign up, for example, for "Baking." But I knew I didn't want to spend a day learning to make biscotti or a chocolate cake. I wanted to learn to make a tart. Or I could have had a day of "Pasta, Pizza and Risotto," and while it would have been fun, I already know how to make pizza and risotto, and I knew I didn't want to learn to make spaghetti. I wanted to reproduce the gloriously decadent raviolis I have been encountering at some of my Ladies Who Lunch adventures. Even the most luxurious ready-made raviolis on the commercial market fall short, I think, and have to be covered in a garlicky, creamy sauce and topped with fried sage to make them interesting. And by the time I'd done all that, I found, the whole point of ready-made food had been lost.

The beauty of Hannah's approach is that I got to tell her EXACTLY what I wanted to learn, and I got to learn in my very own kitchen. So a flurry of emails and phone calls later, I had a massive shopping list and a huge sense of purpose.

I felt as if I were welcoming a blind date into my house! Only even more so: at least on a date you're looking at three, four hours, maximum. Hannah and I cooked together for over seven hours yesterday, and I can tell you that it was one of the best days of my life. I love nothing more than spending a day cooking in any case, but to spend the day WITH someone in the kitchen, and to know that as every hour passed I could do something I couldn't have done before was a tremendous thrill. And you know what: there's nothing to any of those jobs that had scared me so. I just needed a helping hand.

We started off at the deep end: making foccacia dough. Why was I so scared of a little knob of fresh yeast? I bought it two weeks ago, and every time I opened the fridge it stared at me from its plastic bag, mocking my fear. But with Hannah here, I bravely put it on the scale (a scale in my kitchen! who would ever have thought), mixed it with sugar, and watched as it turned liquidy, just as Hannah said it would. Like magic. I mixed and kneaded and shaped it and stuck it in an oiled bowl and that was that. Left in a warm oven to rise while we attacked pasta. A challenge! I confess to being a cook who tends to use a utensil to mix messy things, but there was no tool to replace my own two hands, getting sticky with eggs and flour. I made a well in an enormous pile of flour on my granite counter, plopped in the eggs, and watched as they ran away from me. "Just catch them with your hands and bring them back into the flour!" Hannah laughed, and in no time there was a lovely ball of pasta dough, to chill while we made sweet pastry for the tart.

Tarts and I have had a stormy relationship. The pastry shrinks, the filling doesn't set, the flavors are dull, the whole presentation has a sort of Girl Scout rough-and-ready quality to it. Not yesterday! I learned to roll the pastry out so it more than fills the tart pan, and we made a creme patissiere, a very thick custard, to fill the case, and then VERY precisely covered the whole top with strawberries and raspberries, and glazed it all with melted apricot jam. So simple and perfect.

The foccacia dough was turned out onto the counter and I punched it down and put it in springform pans to rise again, then we made dimples on the two loaves with our knuckles, painted the tops with olive oil, sprinkled rosemary and thyme and sea salt on them and baked them. Absolutely nothing to it. And as you see, they turned out just like a restaurant. I could feel my doubts slipping away!

We made four decadent fillings, one of which turned out to be very boring and so we didn't use it. It was a pumpkin base, and no matter how much garlic, lemon juice, pepper, pine nuts we added, it was just... dull. It tasted of all the things we added, but not of pumpkin, and it wasn't pumpkin colored, as the ravioli I had had at Petersham Nurseries had been. Any suggestions accepted. I hear from my mentor Orlando, however, that pumpkin filling is tricky. Maybe the Lebanese pumpkin I started out with was the wrong ingredient. I really don't know. But the lobster, crab and tomato filling was divinely rich, as was the saffron cream sauce to go with it. Then there was crab and chestnut mushroom stuffing (John's favorite), and finally Avery's requested spinach, ricotta and prosciutto mixture. With that I served a fried sage and butter sauce, and I can tell you right now, you cannot make enough fried sage leaves to make a dinner party happy. We invited my friend Annie and her family to join in the delights, and oh! It was a delight.

Hannah has all the right qualities to make her a pleasure to spend seven straight messy hours with: she's super speedy and efficient (the fastest washer-upper I have ever known), she's flexible and unflappable, she's seen it all twenty times and so is surprised by nothing, and she's encouraging. She gets you down and dirty and asks all the time, "Would you rather be doing..." to make sure you're getting the experience you want. She is also drop-dead gorgeous which doesn't hurt when you spend the whole day with her. Best of all, she truly enjoys bringing her charge up from ignorant to capable, and no question was too stupid for me to ask. And she stayed far beyond the time limit, to make sure I was really ready to feed my guests. When she left, I felt a bit like a babysitter must when the parents leave: was I really in charge?

The dinner went off without a hitch. One caveat I would offer you about fresh pasta: make sure you don't let it get too warm before you cook, because it will stick to whatever surface you put it on. On the off chance that something wouldn't be edible, I had decided to roast a couple of chickens as a supplement (we didn't even TOUCH them!), and as a result the kitchen was very toasty. Some of the lobster raviolis died a sad death on their greaseproof paper, no matter how much flour I sprinkled on to try to save them. But I was feeling so confident by then that you know what I did? I simply scooped the lovely savoury filling (fully cooked) out of the sad dead pasta, and shook it up in my salad dressing. And it was the best dressing ever, for crisp, strong rocket, baby beetroot leaves and spinach. I am not normally very inclined to think out of the box, but it was lovely to find little bites of crab, lobster and tomato in that salad.

What a triumph! I am trying to think now if there are any other frightening spectres lurking in my kitchen cupboards, mocking me with my incompetence. Because I have no doubt that Hannah dispel them. Give her a call, do. What a great Christmas present, thank you, John.

Fresh Pasta

800 grams Type 00 (or pasta) flour
8 large free range eggs

Place the flour in a heap on a work surface and make a well in the center. Pour the eggs into the well (catch them when they run away!) and mix well until you have a ball of really stiff dough, then knead it really well. You want to end up with a nice silky, glossy, smooth ball of dough, quite firm. Be patient and scrape your hands off now and then and don't worry if you can't incorporate every scrap of flour. You will need to knead at least 10 minutes. When finished, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least half an hour in the fridge.

After the resting period, pinch off a piece about the size of three fingers, and feed it through your pasta machine first in the widest setting. Then fold it in half and continue at the widest setting several times, and then continuing through to the finest setting. Lay the pasta out on a floured surface and place an egg-yolk-sized spoonful of the filling of your choice about 2 inches apart, then brush with egg white around the filling to make the top layer of pasta stick. Then play another layer on the top and press all around the mound of filling. Cut around the filling leaving an inch or so of pasta all around. Drop into boiling water for no more than three minutes and drain well.


The Kitchen Queen's Lobster, Crab and Tomato Ravioli with a Saffron Cream, Served with Pan-Fried Courgette and Leek Ribbons
(serves 8 as a starter)

enough fresh pasta for 16 large raviolis
2 medium lobster tails
1 tbsp butter
splash olive oil
100 grams white crab meat
2-3 tbsps tomato puree
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
pinch chilli powder
1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
100 grams mascarpone cheese

Sauce and Topping

large pinch saffron
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup double cream
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
4 tomatoes, deseeded and finely chopped
2 courgettes, made into ribbons using a potato peeler
white part of 1 leek, julienned

Bring water to boil in a saucepan and cook the lobster tails until not quite fully cooked, about 4-5 minutes. Let cool and then shell and cut off the very end (about 2 inches) of the tail and set aside. Chop the remainder of the lobster fairly fine and fry in the butter and olive oil until fully cooked. Lift out of the skillet and leave the skillet to one side to fry the courgettes and leek in later.

In a mixing bowl, mix the crab, tomato puree, lemon juice, salt and pepper, chilli powder, thyme and mascarpone, then the cooled lobster. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill until ready to stuff the pasta. Cut the small ends of lobster tail into eight equal pieces and set aside.

For the sauce, mix the saffron with the chicken stock in a saucepan, then add the cream, 1 clove of garlic, and salt and pepper and simmer high until the sauce reaches a nice thick consistency. Set aside until nearly ready to serve. Make the courgette ribbons and leek julienne and saute them with the remaining clove of garlic in the skillet you used for the lobster.

To serve, boil the ravioli for no more than 3 minutes and place two on each plate. Place the chopped tomatoes in the sauce and heat through, then pour the sauce over the ravioli and top with a little courgette and leek. Finally top each plate with a bit of lobster tail and serve right away.


The Kitchen Queen's Rosemary and Rock Salt Foccacia
(serves eight)

30 grams/1 ounce fresh yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
600 ml/1 pint 2 fl ounces warm water
4 tbsps olive oil, plus more for oiling bowl
680 grams/ 1 1/2 lbs strong white flour, plus more for dusting
2 tsps rock salt, plus 1 1/2 tsps for topping
leaves from 4 rosemary sprigs

Mix the yeast with the sugar in a small bowl and stir until the yeast liquidizes. Stir in two thirds of the water and the olive oil. In a large bowl stir together the flour and salt. Pour the yeast mixture into the flour and salt and mix with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Add more water if the dough is a bit dry (rather it be wet than dry).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for ten minutes until smooth and elastic (Hannah does this by holding onto the dough with one hand and then FIRMLY pushing half of it away with the other, then turning the dough 90 degrees and repeating many times). Place the dough in an oiled bowl and put in a warm place (my 50-degree oven worked fine) under a damp teatowel and rise till doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours.

When the dough has risen, knead it again for about five minutes on a clean floured surface to "knock it back." Then shape the dough into two circles and place them each in an oiled 9-inch springform pan. Place in the warm spot and let rise again to twice their size (about 10-15 minutes). Make 20 or so "dimples" in the dough with your knuckles and brush generously with olive oil. Then sprinkle with salt and press rosemary leaves into them, then sprinkle the rest of the rosemary over the top.

Bake at 220/400 for ten minutes, then lower heat to 190/375 and baker for a further 20-30 minutes until cooked through and golden brown on top. Remove springform and when bread is slightly cooled, remove to a cooling rack. The foccacia is best eaten the day it's made. Enjoy!


The Kitchen Queen's French Raspberry Strawberry Tart
(serves eight)

For the Creme Patissiere:
2 tsps vanilla extract
scraped-out seeds of 1 vanilla pod
560 ml whole milk
50 grams plain flour
4 tsps cornflour
8 egg yolks
120 grams caster sugar

For the Sweet Pastry:
200 grams plain flour, plus extra for dusting
50 grams icing sugar
125 grams cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 large egg, beaten
tiny splash milk

3 tbsps apricot jam
1 punnet each raspberries and strawberries

Whisk the egg yolks, vanilla and sugar together, then add flour and cornflour. Boil the milk and whisk it slowly into egg mixture. Pour the mixture into a clean pan and bring slowly to the boil, until it thickens (it gets very thick!). Simmer for another minute and then chill completely, under a piece of clingfilm to prevent a skin forming.

Mix the flour and icing sugar together in a big bowl. "Rub" the cut-up butter into this mixture, shaking the bowl occasionally to bring the lumps to the surface. If your hands are hot (mine always are), run them under a cold tap to keep you from melting the butter. Mix until you achieve a texture of breadcrumbs. (Hannah says this can be done in the food processor, but we did it the old-fashioned way so I'd know how.) Add the egg and splash of milk so that a dough forms. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for an hour if possible.

Get your flan/tart tin. (Mine did not have a removable base, and it was fine, but one with such a base is preferable.) Roll out pastry on a floured surface until it's large enough to fit over the tin, up the sides and with some left over. Press the dough into the tin and up the sides, then trim to be even with the edge of the tin. Lay some greaseproof paper over the dough, then put a couple of hands of rice, pasta, or baking beans on top of the greaseproof- this helps stop the pastry from rising when we cook it, and is known as "baking blind" (i.e. with nothing else in it).

Bake for 15-20 minutes until pastry is dry and biscuit-like (you don't want a soggy bottom on your tart!). When the pastry case has cooled, transfer it to a nice plate and fill it with the creme patissiere. Top with halved strawberries around the edge and fill the rest of the top with raspberries, hole side down. Paint with the melted apricot jam and enjoy!


Thank you, Hannah, for making my day so exciting and rewarding, for not laughing when I panicked and for answering every question thoroughly and never giving away when it was a silly one, for the incredibly precise and readable instructions (left with me on laminated, beautifully decorated recipe cards), for the Kitchen Queen apron and canvas tote. But mostly, thank you for your willingness to help me with my kitchen demons. I'm a happier person for our time together.


min said...

Wow, the bread looks amazing and everything else sounds delicious!

Kristen In London said...

It WAS amazing, Min, and so easy. I know the lobster ravioli looks like a lot of work but it really was quite simple. I'm going to try the foccacia again today to make sure I can do it alone!