I hope you’ve all been missing me. Dr W and I are away for a few weeks’ work and (mostly) skiing on the West Coast of America. Normal service will resume in mid-February, but in the meantime I encourage anyone who happens to be in Portland, Oregon, to run as fast as they can to Typhoon at the Lucia Hotel on Broadway, where the Thai food is even better than it was at Lotus of Siam in Vegas. (LoS is the restaurant that Gourmet Magazine called the best Thai in the USA. Perhaps I caught them on a bad night and Typhoon on a very good one, but although LoS gave us a great meal, Typhoon gave us one that’s making me consider a bigamous marriage so I can get a green card and come and live in Portland so that I can eat there every night.)
I’ve never met a person who doesn’t love brandysnaps. They’re a buttery, toffee-crisp, lacy bit of teatime royalty. Fox’s, the English biscuit people, started manufacturing these in the 1850s to sell to fairground traders, but they’re a much older recipe (the owner of Fox’s borrowed a family recipe from his neighbour in Yorkshire), which used to be cooked in the home. You can still buy them in packets – but they’re much, much nicer when they’re homemade.
There’s no brandy in the recipe – from what I can make out, brandysnaps never contained any at any point in their history. Some modern recipes will suggest that the cream you serve them with should have a couple of tablespoons of brandy whipped into it, but after some experimentation I’ve decided that this is overkill (and inauthentic overkill at that). The gentle spicing of the brandysnap can be overwhelmed by a strong-tasting filling, so I have used a simple Chantilly (which is just cream whipped with sugar and vanilla) alongside them. These fragile little gingery curls are delicious with cream and soft fruit as a dessert, but they’re also near-perfect eaten completely unadorned, alongside a cup of good coffee.
To make about 20 brandysnaps, you’ll need:
75 g caster (superfine) sugar
125 g golden syrup
125 g salted butter
90 g plain flour
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
Zest of one lemon
Start by measuring out the sugar in your measuring bowl, and spread it carefully over the bottom of the bowl. Then measure out the golden syrup into the same bowl, on top of the sugar. This will stop the golden syrup from sticking to your bowl, and will ensure that you don’t lose any because it’s adhering. Tip the sugar and syrup straight out into a small saucepan, add the butter to the pan and cook them all together over a low flame, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the butter is melted and you have a smooth paste. Don’t allow the mixture to boil. When it is smooth, remove the pan from the heat and tip in the flour, ginger and lemon zest. Stir vigorously until you have what looks like a smooth, thin batter.
Set the pan aside for about 30 minutes, until the mixture is cool, and heat the oven to 190° C (375° F). Grease a baking tin thoroughly.
You’re going to be cooking the brandysnaps four at a time -the mixture spreads out so four just about fill a baking tin, and you will have to curl them while they are still warm – handling more than four at a time is very difficult because they harden quickly, and if you cook more than one tray at a time, by the time you get to your fifth it is likely to have set solid.
Place four heaped teaspoons of the mixture, about four inches apart, on the greased baking tin and put in the oven for ten minutes, until the brandysnaps are bubbly and lacy. Remove the tin from the oven and allow the brandysnaps to cool for about a minute, until they are stiff enough to manoeuvre. Use a spatula to release each flexible brandysnap from the tin, and wrap them around the handle of a wooden spoon to create the tube shape. Cool on a wire rack. (If you want brandysnap baskets rather than curls, drape them over an upturned ramekin rather than wrapping them round a spoon.)
Repeat the process for the rest of the mixture.
I served my brandysnaps with Chantilly (150 ml whipping cream whisked into stiff peaks with 2 teaspoons of vanilla sugar, or 2 teaspoons of caster sugar and a few drops of vanilla essence) and blueberries. You can pipe the cream into the little tubes or serve it alongside them, but don’t fill them more than about half an hour before serving, or the brandysnaps will lose their crispness. Surprisingly, brandysnaps freeze very well once cooked, maintaining their crunch.
These days, few of the vegetables you’ll find in the supermarket are truly seasonal. We’ve got year-round mange tout peas (I remember the days when my parents grew them in the garden – the season only lasted for about about a month, but my, were we sick of peas at the end of that month); year-round broccoli and year-round cauliflower. Spring cabbage appears in the shops in summer, autumn and winter, and out-of-season asparagus is there whenever you want it. It doesn’t taste of anything, but if you want it, it’s there.
Happily for those outraged by man’s twisting of nature, here are a few season-specific things that you won’t find all year round. Some English root vegetables in particular are only easy to find in the winter (for the most part – there’s always bound to be someone bussing turnips in from Australia in high summer), and they’re wonderful in the cold months. It makes sense really – these roots are the energy store of the plants, and so they’re full of sugars and other nutrients.
Celeriac is one of my favourite winter roots. It’s the taproot of a celery plant (not the same one you use to dip in your hummus or to stir your Bloody Mary), but tastes much richer, deeper, creamier and sweeter than celery. I know people who can’t bear celery, but who will happily munch on celeriac; they’re really very different flavours. This vegetable isn’t readily found outside Europe, but if you are an American reader and happen upon one in a market, snap it up so you can impress your friends with your cosmopolitan cooking.
Although modern ‘best before’ stickers tend to suggest you can only keep your celeriac for a week or so, the root will actually keep in the fridge for a month or so if wrapped in plastic to keep it nice and humid- inside your fridge it is dark and cold, which fools the root into thinking it’s still underground – the celeriac won’t be any the worse for it.
The celeriac is a knobbly, rough-skinned vegetable, and its flesh is very hard. Make sure you have a very sharp knife to remove all the skin and nubbly bits, and to cut through the solid root. It makes a lovely soup (which I really ought to blog some time), and it’s great raw in coleslaw. One of the very nicest of French crudités is simply grated raw celeriac blended with a little home-made mayonnaise. But for my money, one of the best things you can do with a chunk of celeriac is to cook it until soft, mash it with a little potato, push the resulting mixture through a sieve and whip it with butter and cream for a very fine and rich side dish.
To make celeriac purée as an accompaniment for four, you’ll need:
1 large celeriac, about 20 cm in diameter (anything larger than this may be a bit woody)
2 medium potatoes (choose a variety which is good for mashing)
100 ml double cream
2 heaping tablespoons salted butter
2 level teaspoons salt (plus more to taste)
Using a very sharp knife, peel the celeriac and cut it into 2 cm square chunks. As soon as you have cut a piece, put it in a saucepan of cold water to stop it from oxidising and turning brown. Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks about twice the size of the celeriac pieces, and add them to the pan. Warm a mixing/serving bowl.
Bring the potatoes and celeriac to the boil, put the lid on the pan and simmer for 15 minutes. Poke the vegetables with a fork to check they are soft (if they are not, cook for another 5 minutes). Drain and use a potato masher to mash the celeriac and potatoes until they are as even as you can manage.
Melt the butter and cream together in a milk pan, and bring to a very low simmer as you sieve the purée.
Push the mashed mixture through a sieve using the back of a ladle. You can also use a mouli or food mill if you have one. The resulting purée will be extremely smooth. Put the purée into the warmed bowl and use a hand whisk to whip the butter and cream mixture into the purée with the salt, and serve immediately. This is particularly good with rich meat dishes and roasts.
I know a lot of you come here for the Chinese and Malaysian recipes, and it hit me last week that I’ve not produced anything new in that line for a couple of months. This soy and anise pork has been worth the wait, though – here, belly pork is braised in a deeply fragrant and savoury sauce until it’s so tender that it positively melts in the mouth.
Star anise is a beautiful, flower-shaped spice from a Chinese evergreen; it’s an entirely different species of plant from European anise, although it has a similar flavour. It’s one of the aromatics used in five-spice powder, and has a warm, intensely fragrant taste. There’s been something of a shortage of the spice in recent years because an acid found in star anise is used in making Tamiflu, the anti-influenza drug. Happily for the cooks among you (and those with flu), drugs companies have since started to synthesise shikimic acid, so star anise is back on the shelves again. The Chinese use it as an indigestion remedy – you can try it yourself by releasing a seed from the woody star and chewing it after a meal if you feel you’ve overindulged.
This recipe capitalises on the affinity star anise has for rich meats like pork. Belly pork is one of my favourite cuts of meat (you can find some more recipes for belly pork here) – it’s flavourful, has brilliant texture, and the fat gives it a wonderful unctuous quality as it bastes itself from within. To serve four with rice and a stir-fried vegetable, you’ll need:
1 kg pork belly
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 tablespoons lard or flavourless oil
5 cloves garlic
4 flowers of star anise
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
4 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons salt
250 ml pork or chicken stock
Using a very sharp knife or a Chinese cleaver, chop the pork into strips about 1.5 cm thick. (Do not remove the skin, which will become deliciously melting when cooked.) Mix one tablespoon of the soy sauce with the honey and five-spice powder in a bowl, and marinade the sliced pork in the mixture for an hour.
Chop the garlic and shallots very finely. Heat the lard to a high temperature in a thick-bottomed pan with a close-fitting lid, and fry the garlic, shallots, star anise and brown sugar together until they begin to turn gold. Turn the heat down to medium, add the pork to the pan with its marinade, and fry until the meat is coloured on all sides.
Pour over the chicken stock, and add the salt and the rest of the soy sauce. Bring the mixture to the boil, reduce to a gentle simmer, cover and continue to simmer for two hours, turning the meat every now and then. If the sauce seems to be reducing and thickening, add a little water.
This is one of those recipes which is even better left to cool, refrigerated, and then reheated the next day.
I am a sap. An uncultivated one, at that. Our last day in Las Vegas saw me standing outside Bellagio and bawling my eyes out when the fountains danced in the sun to the Star Spangled Banner, making rainbows appear in the spray.
God Save the Queen has never had this effect on me.
Bellagio is one of my very favourite casinos in Las Vegas. Dr W finds it a bit too busy, especially at night, so we stay at the quieter Mandalay Bay, but we do a lot of our eating at Bellagio. A foodie could easily stay at Bellagio for a week and not feel any need to step outside the building. Both Le Cirque and Picasso have four AAA diamonds; Jasmine is one of Vegas’s top Chinese restaurants (charmingly, all the dishes at Jasmine are priced at some dollars and 88 cents, 88 being an extremely auspicious number which represents long life and prosperity). Prime is an exceptional steakhouse; Jean Phillipe kicked off the new Vegas vogue for fabulous French pastries and houses the world’s largest chocolate fountain. There are another five or so classy restaurants I’ve not tried; all this on top of one of the city’s very best buffets; Petrossian, which offers caviar and high tea; and a few more casual cafés.
Michael Mina is Chef Mina’s flagship restaurant in a city where he runs four of the things. I have no idea how he manages to assure quality across all of his restaurants, but he works it all with some style – no trip to Vegas is complete for me without at least one visit to his Stripsteak (Mandalay Bay); and his two MGM Grand outposts (Seablue and Nob Hill) attract stellar reviews.
I was looking for somewhere really special where we could eat our Christmas meal – although Vegas largely ignores the holiday, some restaurants (Picasso among them) close their doors for Christmas day, so booking can be a little complicated. Happily, Michael Mina was taking reservations. I’ll admit to a little trepidation – would service and cooking be as good as usual on Christmas Day, when people would rather be with their families? As it turned out, the answer was a very delicious yes. We both selected the Cookbook Tasting Menu, made up of recipes from Michael Mina: The Cookbook(full of things you’re unlikely to cook at home because black cod, small and succulent lobsters, fresh truffles, raw quail eggs, fresh foie gras and Kobe beef are probably not available at your local corner shop). An additional $35 will also secure you a signed copy of the book. I turned the offer down; near my baggage limit already, I couldn’t afford the extra weight (and I’m cheap). Although Mina’s particular speciality is fish, there is plenty of meat available on the tasting menus (three tasting menus were on offer on the day we visited, one vegetarian) and on the a la carte menu.
The day’s amuse bouche was a carrot and curry soup – simple but very delicious. Michael Mina’s breads are always a work of art, and the Agen prune and black pepper buns were yeasty little joys.
The menu proper opens with one of Mina’s signature dishes, tuna tartar, which is mixed at the table, requiring two servers. Tiny dice of garlic, jalapeño and apple were mixed into the exceptionally fresh tuna, with the yolk of a quail egg, apple, mint chiffonade and pine nuts.
As usual, I had to ask for a non-lobster alternative for the lobster course. (Anaphylaxis is always embarrassing in public.) Our server, who was so helpful throughout the meal that I wanted to take him home with me and give him the vacuum cleaner, suggested swapping it out for any course from the other tasting menu. This is always an excellent sign in a restaurant (some places will just give you a grudging bowl of the soup of the day, which is utterly depressing when your dining partner is chomping through a perfect hunk of truffled claw-meat). The lobster pot pie is one of Mina’s signature dishes, and Dr W holds that it’s the best lobster dish he’s ever tried. The pastry lid is scored and lifted off for you at the table, and I can tell you it smells about as good as Dr W says it tastes. My substitute course was a crisp-skinned black sea bass with scallop tempura in a red wine jus with cauliflower purée and wild mushrooms. The myriad different but complementary things going on in this dish were pure Mina – and the scallop, barely cooked but crisply enrobed in tempura, was uniquely sweet and delicate.
My favourite course was the black cod in miso (sadly a million times more delicate than my own pretty darn good miso-glazed salmon, which is why Michael Mina is a millionaire chef who owns 11 restaurants and I am only a moderately successful food blogger). This is another Mina million-things-at-once dish; it came with enoki, shitake and something my notebook claims as ‘mystery mushroom’, a soft ravioli (raviolus?) filled with a Chinese shrimp and scallop mixture, all sat in a dark and savoury mushroom consommé on a bed of pak choi.
Rib-eye Rossini was up next. Rib eye is, apparently, Mina’s favourite cut of steak. It’s tender but comes from an area close to the bone; a good piece is gorgeously marbled and has all the flavour that comes from the proximity of that bone. The foie gras on top was seared to perfection. (Fans of this preparation will either be amused or horrified to learn that elsewhere in the city, at Hubert Keller’s Burger Bar and Fleur de Lys, you can order a Kobe Rossini burger, prepared with truffles, dark red wine and shallot jus, and foie gras, approximately like a steak Rossini, for $60. I have never sampled it – Kobe’s too soft to make a decent burger from and anyway, the whole thing sounds like a postmodern Las Vegas step too far for me.)
A trio of Mina’s signature desserts featured the menu’s only nod to that Las Vegas postmoderism – a root beer float. Dr W doesn’t like root beer, but he slurped this down like a baby craving mother’s milk. Fizzy, icy mother’s milk. Three of the best chocolate and pecan cookies to pass your lips also nestle on the plate, next to a chocolate fondant so good that the sale of someone’s soul must have been involved somewhere.
An interesting conversation went on at the table next to us. The lady there told her waiter she’d not found a good cof
fee yet in Las Vegas (I would have pointed her at Bouchon or Jean Philippe). Her waiter said that this has much to do with the city’s awful tap water – tap water that is so chlorinated and oddly sweet that I find it hard to drink. He talked about the new espresso machine in the restaurant, the filtered water and the special blend and roast, and told her that if she didn’t like her coffee it would be on the house.
When she had finished her first espresso, she ordered another double.
So we, of course, ordered coffees, and they were excellent. The petits fours were a real treat – I much prefer an old-fashioned sampling of petits fours to the boring plate of posh chocolates that so many restaurants seem to be offering these days.
So then. How do I top this next Christmas?
This is a handsome cake. The caramel and fruit layer on a pineapple upside-down cake looks positively jewel-like, and tastes glorious, soaking into the cake to add a rich moistness to an already toothsome sponge. If, like me, you significantly lack cake-decorating skills, you’ll like this recipe, which produces a foolproof but rather beautiful piece of baking. If you can get pineapple tinned in syrup rather than juice, use that for an extra kick of gloss and sweetness; however, if all that’s available near you is the kind in juice, that will work perfectly well. (It’s what I used here.)
To make one pineapple upside-down cake, you’ll need:
50g salted butter
50g soft brown sugar
1 can pineapple rings (in syrup if possible)
3 tablespoons milk
175 g softened unsalted butter
175 g caster (superfine) sugar
3 large eggs
175 g self-raising flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
Begin by greasing and lining a 25cm round cake tin with greaseproof paper. Don’t use a springform tin – there is caramel in the pineapple layer which will dribble out of a tin with a loose bottom when heated.
Prepare the caramel by melting the salted butter, a couple of drops of vanilla essence and the soft brown sugar together in a small pan and boiling hard for five minutes. (Watch out here – the caramel will be very hot.) Pour the caramel into the bottom of the lined tin, and tip the tin carefully to make sure that it covers the base well.
Arrange the pineapple rings in a tight pattern on the bottom of the tin (see pictures), and put a glacé cherry in the middle of each one. Set the tin aside while you prepare the cake batter.
Put the milk, unsalted butter, sugar, flour, eggs and baking powder in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer for two minutes, until the batter is pale and stiff. Spread the batter out over the pineapple pieces with a spatula and bake the cake for 50 minutes, until a skewer pushed into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cool for about ten minutes in its tin, until it is cool enough to handle (this sponge can be quite fragile when very hot), then place a plate over the top of the cake tin, hold it there firmly and turn the whole assembly upside down, so the cake slips out, upside-down, onto the plate. Slide the cake off the plate onto a cooling rack until it is completely cold.
On hearing yet more government waffle about obesity (surely a delicious, cinnamon sugar-dusted waffle) on the radio yesterday morning, I felt moved to action. Especially when Gordon Brown announced that access to the NHS should be rationed for the fat. This seems somewhat hypocritical. Gordon Brown’s own flabby udders are usually concealed by a well-cut suit, but do spare a moment to compare his wobbling great jowls with those of the undeniably fat Vegas-era Elvis, who has been much on my mind recently, it being his birthday yesterday. (Elvis is the one a bit lower down on the right, in case there was any confusion). I have been kind here. This was not the least flattering photo of Gordon I could find.
The obese pay as much National Insurance as you or I do, and conditional access to a service that we all pay for is a truly alarming idea – my guess is that Gordon’s trying to make sure the NHS reaches its targets by ensuring it has no patients at all. Only last month, the House of Lords, which surely has better things to do with its time, had a debate on restricting the sale of thick-sliced bread so that our packed lunches are less fattening. What better way, I thought, to stick two fingers up at the lot of the buggers, than to use some thick-sliced bread to make one of Elvis Presley’s favourite, most deadly sandwiches – and to encourage you to too?
Elvis was a man of huge appetites. He was particularly big (if you’ll pardon the pun) on very large, very calorific sandwiches involving peanut butter. Legend has it that when visiting Denver, he ordered 22 Fool’s Gold sandwiches from the Colorado Mine Company restaurant (now closed) to be delivered to his aeroplane for the trip home. These sandwiches cost $49.50 each back in 1976. Each one was made from a single French loaf, hollowed out and rubbed generously with margarine. The greasy loaf was coated with peanut butter, baked until the bread was crisp and the peanut butter runny, then adorned with a pound of crisp bacon and a whole jar of grape jelly.
A single Fool’s Gold sandwich rocks up at more than 9000 calories.
I decided not to recreate the Fool’s Gold sandwich, because it seemed a sure-fire route to an untimely death on the toilet. Back at Graceland, however, a favourite snack (snack!) was the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, which comes in at a relatively modest 750 calories. I used the canonical recipe, which uses an unholy amount of butter, as described by Mary Jenkins Langston, Elvis’s own cook. Now, I am a fan of peanut butter, of white bread, of bananas and of butter. But I have to tell you that I wasn’t able to eat a whole one, and that as I write this I am feeling distinctly unwell and am clutching at a glass of Alka Seltzer.
This is largely because of the huge amount of butter that goes into this sandwich – two US sticks of the stuff (that’s eight ounces) for every three sandwiches. As Mary herself said, Elvis was very, very keen on using other substances as a mere vehicle for gallons and gallons of good old fat:
”For breakfast, he’d have homemade biscuits fried in butter, sausage patties, four scrambled eggs and sometimes fried bacon,” she said. “I’d bring the tray up to his room, he’d say, ‘This is good, Mary.’ He’d have butter running down his arms.”
Of the sandwich, she said:
”It’d be just floating in butter. You’d turn it and turn it and turn it until all the butter was soaked up; that’s when he liked it.”
It wasn’t drugs that killed Elvis. It was Mary’s cooking.
To make one sandwich (do not, under any circumstances, attempt to eat the whole thing yourself, because you’ll make yourself sick) you’ll need:
1 large banana
2 slices white bread
2½ oz butter
Toast the bread lightly, and spread both slices thickly (I know, I know, but Mary says ‘thickly’, so thickly is how I am spreading) with peanut butter. Slice the banana into coins and layer them on top of one peanut-slathered slice of bread, then put the other on top, pressing so the whole thing sticks together.
Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan or cast-iron skillet and heat it until it foams. Slide the sandwich in and fry it, turning frequently (important, this turning, or else you will end up with a hunk-a hunk-a burning sandwich) for about five minutes, until the centre is heated through and the lake of butter absorbed.
Eat with a knife and fork, a glass of antacid, and intimations of mortality.
I have a sense that Thomas Keller, one of America’s best chefs and a man with impeccable style and taste, doesn’t really do the Vegas thing. Bouchon, his Las Vegas outpost, feels positively out of time and place in this very modern, very garish city. By hiding it in a little-travelled corner of the sprawling Venetian Casino Resort, he’s successfully made it feel private, out-of-the-way and oddly genuine in a city full of fibreglass souks serving sushi. (It really is out-of-the-way, in a corner of the Venezia tower; from the car park you will need to take two separate elevators, and if you’re approaching from the casino you will have to swallow your pride and ask for directions, because it’s near-impossible to locate otherwise.)
Bouchon is a glorious Palladian room housing a Lyonnaise bistro (or ‘bouchon’), all marble-topped tables, encaustic tiles, sweeping arched windows, a pewter bar and pristine white-aproned serving staff. The restaurant has won a number of awards, many for its breakfast, and made Anthony Bourdain spit with rage over the French fries (of all things), which he admitted were better than the ones he serves at Les Halles. It serves what is, for my money, absolutely the best breakfast you will find in the city – we made a point of walking the two and a half miles from Mandalay Bay each time we went in order to burn as many morning calories as possible before arriving.
Breakfast diners are given complimentary butter, jam and an epi of freshly baked bread. Bouchon’s bakery has a giant reputation, and you’re well advised to sample the pastries on offer at the top of the menu alongside the excellent bread. Pains au chocolat are a beautiful example – hundreds of impossibly fine layers of flaky croissant dough, beautifully crisp outside and meltingly tender within, coiled around a stick of bitter chocolate – just begging to be dipped in your coffee. Even that coffee is something special; Chef Keller has selected the blend of four beans from all over the world, and it’s a beautiful, dark, chocolatey roast, fantastic with those pastries.
We used to live in Paris before we got married, and I haunted patisseries like Angelina, Laduree and Hédiard. I am utterly alarmed to find better pastries than were available in any of the famous Paris names in a place like Las Vegas. My favourite pastry was probably this cheese Danish – a cloud of sweetened cream cheese on the lightest, flakiest, melting-est Danish base I’ve ever encountered.
Breakfast entrées include Dr W’s favourite, the Bouchon French Toast. This is prepared bread pudding style – a tower of hot, custardy brioche, studded with jewels of cooked apple, drizzled with maple syrup and garnished with thin, thin slices of raw apple. If held at gunpoint, I couldn’t choose between the amazingly light and flavourful boudin blanc with beurre noisette and scrambled egg (the only quibble I had over a few meals at Bouchon – these eggs weren’t among the best I’ve eaten, being rather dry and hard) and the croque madame, which oozes glorious bechamel and Gruyère. That croque madame comes with the pommes frites which made Tony Bourdain enter a deep depression, and they’re very good indeed. They’re dry, crisp, fluffy inside, and hard to stop eating. But for French fry perfection in Las Vegas I recommend that you visit Stripsteak, a Michael Mina restaurant at Mandalay Bay, where the trio of duck fat fries (always served as an amuse bouche, and also available as a side dish) – one pot with paprika dusting and a barbecue sauce, one with truffles and a truffle aïoli, and one with herbs and a home-made ketchup – are far and away the best I’ve ever eaten.
Bouchon always offers a few daily specials on the blackboard. Peekytoe crab hash with onion confit, a poached egg and hollandaise was, according to the lady at the next table, ‘Perfect. Gorgeous.’ Dr W’s tomato, bacon and spinach omelette with sharp cheddar was a simple preparation presented brilliantly. And Keller’s quiches are justifiably famous – tender, moist and delicious, with a brittle, short crust.
Service here was charming and unobtrusive. On each visit, our waiters were very happy to answer questions (even rather technical ones about the sourcing of ingredients), and refilled coffee and water unobtrusively.
As you’ve probably gathered by looking at the number of dishes mentioned above, we didn’t feel much like eating breakfast anywhere else once we’d eaten our first Bouchon meal. Somehow, we didn’t manage to make it to the restaurant for an evening meal – I’m leaving supper at Bouchon as a treat for our next visit to Vegas, which is probably my favourite city for eating in the world.
Icing a cake neatly is a stressful task, so a recipe like this, where a soft, fudgy icing is just slathered all over the cake with a spatula is much more fun than obsessional piping. The cake in the middle of all that icing is a lovely light, moist spongy affair, made rich with plenty of butter and cocoa. This is probably not great for your New Year’s diet, but I’d suggest doing what Dr Weasel is doing today, and making one to take to the office in order to scotch the weight-loss ambitions of your colleagues.
3 tablespoons cocoa
6 tablespoons boiling water
175 g softened unsalted butter
175 g caster (superfine) sugar
3 large eggs
175 g self-raising flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
50 g softened unsalted butter
35 g cocoa
3 tablespoons milk
225 g icing (confectioner’s) sugar
Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F). Grease and line a 25cm round cake tin – I like to use a springform tin, which makes turning the cake out later much easier.
Mix the cocoa with the hot water from the kettle in a mixing bowl, and leave aside to cool. Sift the flour into the bowl and add the butter, sugar, eggs and baking powder. Beat with an electric whisk on high for about two minutes, until the mixture is stiff and pale. Spoon into the lined cake tin and bake for 35 minutes. Check for done-ness by pushing a skewer into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, with no chocolatey bits adhering, the cake is done. Turn out onto a metal rack and remove the greaseproof paper to cool.
To make the icing, melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the cocoa. Cook, stirring well, for about a minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the milk and icing sugar. Beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth, and cool until thick enough to spread over the cooled cake.
If you like, you can cut the cake in half horizontally at this point and glue the halves together with some of the icing. Dr Weasel, who is in charge of cakes in our house, decided to use the fudgy mixture to ice the top and sides of the cake – and very delicious it was too.
I’ve been experimenting with roast chickens. You’ll notice that the method here is rather different from other roast chicken recipes on this site; this time I’m getting you to stuff a buttery mixture under the skin and then blast the chicken at a very high temperature for a much shorter cooking time than usual. I’m amazed at the difference this makes to the finished product. The skin is crisp and flavourful – absolutely the best I’ve ever achieved on a roast bird – and the flesh is incredibly juicy and moist, taking on flavour from the butter, herb and shallot mixture, but requiring no basting or turning upside-down and juggling in the oven.
I had a great email conversation over Christmas with an American gentleman in Japan who was wondering about typically English flavours to cook his Christmas goose with. Sage and onion is one of the classic English mixtures, and here it goes to make a boring old chicken really festive. I’d be very happy serving this as a Christmas dinner for people who (like me) don’t go a bundle on turkey. The gravy here is also typically English – it’s thickened with flour and makes a lovely, glossy, boozy glaze for the meat. I served a side of mashed potato with this to soak up lots of the gravy (because mashed potato and gravy is one of the best things in the world, right up there with sex and roller coasters), some easy stuffing balls to reflect the sage and onion flavours, and a really tart salad to cut through all the lovely butter.
To roast one chicken weighing about three pounds (around 1.5 kg), which should serve three or four, you’ll need:
2 small (round) shallots or 1 large (banana) shallot
125 g (¼ lb) softened salted butter
12 fresh sage leaves
2 medium onions
Salt and pepper
1½ dessert spoons flour
1 small glass dry white wine
100 ml chicken stock
8 sage leaves
Olive oil to fry
Preheat the oven to a blistering 230°C (450° F). Dice the shallots as finely as possible – think micro-dice – using your sharpest knife, and combine them thoroughly in a bowl with the zest of the lemon, a teaspoon of salt and the butter. Use your fingers and the back of a teaspoon to separate the skin over the breast of the chicken from the muscle, starting at the bottom (leg) end of the bird, where the cavity opens. You should be able to make a large pocket between skin and flesh over each breast. Use fingers to stuff this pocket with all but two teaspoons of the soft butter, then slide six whole sage leaves under the skin as well, on top of the butter mixture. Push the remaining two teaspoons of butter and two more sage leaves into the space where the chicken’s legs meet the body.
Chop the zested lemon in half and slice the onions roughly. Remove any lumps of fat from inside the chicken and discard. Push half the lemon and half an onion into the chicken’s cavity with four more sage leaves and some salt and pepper. Make a pile of the onion pieces in the centre of your roasting tin and balance the chicken on top, then rain another teaspoon of salt all over the skin of the bird and roast for an hour.
When the hour is up, use a skewer to poke into the fattest part of the chicken’s thigh. If the juices run clear, remove from the oven; if there is any pinkness, return the bird to the oven for another ten minutes and repeat. Remove the chicken to a warmed platter and leave it in a warm place to rest for ten minutes while you make the gravy and the crispy sage leaves.
Pour any juices from the cavity of the chicken into a small frying pan over a medium flame, along with all the fat, juices and onion bits from the roasting tin. Do not discard any of the flavourful butter and fat from the roasting tin – if you feel guilty after having overdone it at Christmas, go for a run tomorrow rather than deprive yourself of flavour here.
Bring the contents of the pan up to a gentle simmer, and sprinkle over the flour. Use a wooden spoon, making tiny circles in the pan, to work the flour into the fatty mixture until no floury lumps are visible. (There will be onion pieces and bits of chicken kicking around in there – these are fine; you just don’t want any floury bits.)
The liquid in the pan will start to thicken dramatically. Pour over the glass of wine and continue to stir for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol. Pour in the chicken stock and continue to stir for a couple more minutes, then taste for seasoning. Tip in any juices which the chicken has released while resting, and get someone to start carving.
Sage leaves method
These are as easy as anything. Just heat the oil in a little pan and throw in the sage leaves for a few seconds. They will frizzle and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle over the carved chicken.