Perfect mashed potatoes

Update, Feb 2008: Lots of people have asked me if you can freeze mashed potatoes. The answer’s complicated – mash will freeze, but it won’t be as good as it was fresh (it tends to change texture in a watery direction and lose some of its flavour). However (there’s always a however), if you want to have some spare mash kicking around to top shepherd’s pie, thicken soups or use as a base for fishcakes, it’s worth freezing individual portions to use in these recipes if you have some left over. Heat the portions for a while in a saucepan once defrosted to evaporate out some of the water before using.

Mashed potatoes are probably my favourite comfort food. One of my earliest memories is that of my mother coaxing me away from the brink of death by measles with plain mashed potatoes and a little gravy. The mashed potatoes I dream about are not mashed potatoes spiked with mustard or garlic; no pesto colours them bright green for me. I like my mashed potatoes spiced gently with black pepper and nutmeg, and with plenty of salt. Some cooks will tell you to use white pepper for aesthetic reasons; I see nothing wrong with a few black specks in my mash, especially given that freshly ground black pepper tastes so much better in this dish than white does.

The potato you choose is important. Potato varieties can be split into two groups – waxy and floury. Waxy potatoes keep their shape well when cooked and are excellent in gratins – they remain quite moist when cooked. A floury potato cooks to a drier, more fluffy finish, doesn’t hold its shape well, and should be your potato of choice for mashing.

My great-grandma used to mash potatoes to lump-free perfection with a fork. God knows how. I use a bog-standard potato masher. Excellent results can be reliably achieved with a potato ricer, which sort of extrudes the cooked potato through tiny holes. Regular readers will know that I’m always chary about buying single-use devices, so I stick to my masher, which also gets used for other generalised vegetable-squashing tasks.

Whatever you do, don’t use a food processor. I am not quite sure about the physics behind this, but any high-intensity processing of the sort you get with a Magimix makes the potatoes very slimy and not very appetising.

King Edwards, Saxon, Estime or Nadine potatoes all mash well; they’re floury and flavourful. The technique is all-important; whipping scalding hot milk into your dry mash will make the mixture silky and fluffy, and a large knob of butter adds richness. To serve four, you’ll need:

700g potatoes, peeled and cut into evenly sized chunks
¼ pint full cream milk
1 large knob butter
Salt and pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg

Simmer the potatoes in boiling water with the lid on for about 20 minutes, until you can easily push a knife through the centre of one. Drain and return to the pan, and put down somewhere warm with the lid on for five minutes while you bring the milk up to a gentle simmer. Drop the butter into the middle of the pan with the salt, generous grindings of pepper and some freshly ground nutmeg, and mash vigorously until there are no lumps. (You’ll find the potatoes are best with a surprisingly large amount of salt, but I like potatoes better than my arteries.)

Hold the milk pan in your left hand and a wooden spoon in your right, and pour the milk into the mashed potatoes in a thin stream, beating it in with the wooden spoon. Serve immediately – these will be the creamiest, most delicate mashed potatoes you’ve ever eaten. If you’ve any left over, keep them in the fridge and make fishcakes tomorrow.

Yorkshire pudding

I’ve had a couple of emails following yesterday’s post about roast pork, one asking what a Yorkshire pudding is, and one asking whether I can post a Yorkshire pudding recipe. I’m very pleased to get a chance to write about this; Yorkshire pudding is a traditional English roast meal accompaniment, it’s delicious, it looks impressive if you cook it properly and tastes great.

Yorkshire pudding was historically served as a first course to fire up the appetite. These days you’ll find Yorkshire pudding with gravy as a main course in restaurants in certain areas of Yorkshire, and it’s presented as a crisp and delicious side dish in homes all over the country.

This is a batter pudding, but it is not the same as the American popover; the batter is less rich and results in a lighter, crisper and airier finish. Some people prefer to cook individual small puddings in muffin or fairy cake tins; others (my mother among them, and she makes some of the best Yorkshire pudding I’ve eaten) prefer to cook enough for everyone in a single, large roasting tin. The batter rises purely as a result of the air beaten into it expanding in the very hot fat and dish you use. You’ll need to cook your puddings in a convection oven or in a single layer very high in a regular oven. Before doing anything else, heat the oven to a blistering 220°C. If you are roasting a joint, you can bring the oven up to this temperature for the last fifteen minutes of cooking, then remove the joint to rest while the puddings finish. To make four individual puddings you’ll need:

75g plain flour
1 egg
75ml milk
50ml water
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon of beef dripping or goose fat per pudding

Put a teaspoon of fat in each depression in the muffin tin, and put the tin in the oven to come up to temperature. Sieve the flour into a bowl with the salt and pepper, and use the unbroken egg to make a depression in the middle of the heap of flour. Break the egg into this well and use an electric hand-whisk to slowly incorporate it into the flour, adding the milk and water gradually as you whizz. Transfer the batter to a jug. (Some Yorkshire pudding batters need to stand after you’ve made them; this one doesn’t, which is . . . pleasing.)

You need to work as fast as you can now; make sure you don’t allow the oven or the pan to cool down at all. Quickly pour a quarter of the batter in each of the oil-filled depressions and slam everything in the oven again as fast as you can.

Twenty five minutes later, your puddings should have risen and turned golden. Serve immediately (a cold Yorkshire pudding will deflate slightly). These soak up gravy beautifully. Enjoy.

Beef and Guinness casserole

My Dad told me a while ago that he doesn’t enjoy stews and casseroles which use stout as a base; he finds them, he said, bitter. This is an opinion shared by a lot of people, and it’ s such a shame; the only reason the stout casseroles you’ve eaten in the past have been bitter has to do with length of time in the oven. Cooked at a low temperature for several hours, the beer will magically turn into a rich, sweet and glossy sauce, and there won’t be a hint of bitterness. Promise.

The preparation of this dish doesn’t take too long, but you’ll need to leave it in the oven for at least three hours – if making if for lunch, I usually make it the night before, leave it in the fridge overnight and reheat. Like many casseroles, it improves with keeping.

Stout, for those who are only familiar with good old Guinness, is a generic term for a very dark, heavy beer made with roasted malts and barley. You can use any stout; it doesn’t have to be Guinness. Stout has a toasty, dry flavour; buy a couple of cans to drink with the meal.

I used:
2 1/2 lb rump steak, cubed
3 red onions, quartered and split into layers
2 cans Guinness (or other stout)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, squashed
1 jar of pickled walnuts, halved
2 tablespoons of juice from the walnut jar
2 tablespoons flour
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Pickled walnuts are another curiously English thing; walnuts picked before they are ripe and pickled whole in a sweetened vinegar. They’re perfect with sharp English cheeses like cheddar; sweet and tangy, with a lovely nutty aroma. I use Opie’s pickled walnuts; they do look like tiny roast mouse brains (that’s one in the photo at the top, nestling to the right of the meat and kind of indistinguishable from it), but they’re extremely good. Leave them out if you can’t find any (English supermarkets carry them all year round with the other pickles), and add the juice of a lemon and a tablespoon of sugar instead.

Preheat the oven to a very low setting (140c/275f).

Brown the meat in olive oil in small batches. (In the picture on the right, it’s just been browned. There is only half a glass of Guinness because I have drunk the rest of the can already. Oops.) Use the pan you’ll be cooking the casserole in, over a high flame, and remove the browned meat to a dish. You can really go to town with the browning; you want a good deep brown, almost charred finish to give the flavour depth. When the meat is removed from the pan, add some more olive oil, and add the onions to the pan, stirring them until their edges are also a little charred. Return the meat to the dish with its juices, and stir in the flour (which will help to thicken the sauce). Continue stirring for a minute, then add both cans of Guinness, the herbs and garlic, and the pickled walnuts and their juice. Season, bring to a simmer (hard to spot, this; Guinness gets very frothy when you make it hot), and then put the lid on and put the dish in the oven.

Three hours later, you’ll have a rich and unctuous casserole. The meat will be incredibly tender, dark brown and full of juices. I served it with some mashed King Edward potatoes, with quarter of a pint of boiling milk beaten into them, some truffle-infused olive oil and a sprinkling of thyme. I’d like to try making this with Young’s Chocolate Stout some time; there’s a world of chocolate beer out there just crying out to be cooked with.

Apple sauce

At the weekend, my Dad cooked some roast pork (roast pork which he did not allow me to photograph, the shy man). Now, clearly, nothing is better with roast pork than a good apple sauce, so I spent twenty minutes the previous evening making some so that it would have a night in the fridge to infuse with quiet background flavours from some spicing and orange peel.

At this time of year the shops are full of handsome, enormous Bramley apples. They’re a cooking apple too tart to eat raw (my Grandma used to grow them, and I learned this to my cost), but when cooked they melt into a beautiful, pale, fruity mush.

I peeled and chopped five apples (leaving the cores and seeds intact – there’s almondy flavour in those little seeds which emphasises the apple-ness of the sauce), and put them in a pan with half a wine glass of water, three whole allspice berries, four cloves, a stick of cinnamon, two and a half tablespoons of caster sugar and some pared orange peel. Fifteen minutes of simmering reduced the chunks to a fluffy mass.

While the mixture was still warm, I beat in a large knob of butter and a pinch of salt. You only need a tiny bit of salt in this, and it doesn’t make the finished sauce at all salty, just underlining the flavour of the sauce.

The mixture, still a bit rough and lumpy (and still full of spice and peel) sat on the side until cool, and then went into the fridge to develop overnight. The next morning, I pushed it through a sieve, making the texture silky and smooth, and getting rid of the spices (nothing is quite as surprising as an unexpected allspice berry cracked between your wisdom teeth). Allspice is a curiously English spice, popping up in all kinds of recipes from cake batters to treatments for game. It’s the dried berry of a variety of Jamaican myrtle, and was given its name by English explorers who believed that it combined the flavour of cloves, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon. It doesn’t really; its flavour is very much its own, but in the UK a mixed, ground spice blend is sometimes used as a substitute.

The finished sauce is not a thing of beauty, but it tasted extremely good; fruity with a glossy depth from the butter and spiced in a way that didn’t shout at you. Perhaps next time I’ll add a little dried chili and some grated fresh ginger. We glopped it all over my Dad’s excellent roast pork, and were happy.

Everything stops for tea

I married Mr Weasel not just for his charm and good looks, but also for the fact that he does the washing up, sharpens a knife like a pro, and has parents who live in Ilkley, a beautiful town in Yorkshire which boasts one of the best teashops in the country.

High tea is a tradition which has clung on boldly in Yorkshire, when the rest of us are spending our Saturday afternoons eating crisps in front of the television. When we visit the family, we are usually treated to a huge table on a Saturday, piled with scones, curd tarts, jams, toast, cakes, muffins – and endless cups of excellent tea.

Betty’s Tea Rooms are a strange thing indeed in a town fifteen miles from Leeds, Leeds being full of the sorts of places footballers eat. Betty’s is an old-fashioned teashop of the kind you read about in dismal Somerset Maugham stories about margarine and the death of hope, but without the death and the margarine. Betty’s is emphatically not dismal. Betty’s is a glorious beacon of lightly browned carbohydrate and gloopy, gloopy, sweet sauces.

I should remark at this point that the quality of the photographs in this post may be a little . . . rubbish, since I loathe and detest wandering into restaurants, tea rooms, bars and cafes and pointing my camera at things. I am half-Chinese, and I become terribly paranoid that people are casting me in their heads as a strangely grumpy-looking Japanese tourist when I pull out the camera. This leads me to try to photograph things in secret, which isn’t a recipe for good pictures.

Nobody wanted to go to Betty’s. We’d already eaten enough lamb to keep a (smallish and reasonably delicate) rugby team nourished and warmed for the day at lunchtime, and it hadn’t gone down. I bullied my mother-in-law and husband into accompanying me with the promise of cakes.

Cakes there were by the dozen. Beautiful, jewel-like cakes; the sort of cakes you expect to see lined up in a Paris branch of Hediard or Laduree. Gleaming counters of the things stretched as far as the eye could see; cakes laid out in glistening rows on cool marble, topped with shining, jellied fruits, palpitating curds and elegant piping.

My mother-in-law and Mr Weasel perked up.

Betty’s was opened by a Swiss confectioner in 1919; the first branch was in nearby Harrogate. The company has stayed small, keeping its few tearooms in Yorkshire while marketing its teas around the country as Taylors of Harrogate. The staff wear starched white aprons and black skirts, and the tearooms themselves have a real sense of 1920s’ style. The menu still has a Swiss influence in this unlikely place, the savouries menu featuring rosti with raclette and other good things.

We weren’t up to another main course, and Mr Weasel was refusing to eat anything at all (he is watching his figure in order to be able to consume more curry before erupting out of his swimming shorts when we visit India next week), so decided on a brown bread ice-cream sundae (ostensibly for me, but ultimately gargled, swilled and slurped in the most part by Mr Weasel, who was hungrier than he thought) and a custard slice for his Mum.

Brown bread ice cream is altogether more wonderful than it sounds. I seem to remember Sainsbury’s trying to sell it a few years ago; they stopped because not enough people were brave enough to try it. A shame. It’s glorious stuff. At its simplest, it’s a really good vanilla ice-cream with roasted breadcrumbs, caramelised in demerara sugar. It’s got everything; crunch, sweetness, a toasty mellowness from the crumbs and a lovely contrast between the melting ice-cream and the friable crumbs.

The sundae was enormous. It was also pleasantly uncomplicated; just glorious ice-cream in one flavour, crushed pecan nuts, broken amaretti, a glossy, buttery toffee sauce and some cream. Two pecans on top vanished somewhere while my head was turned photographing a custard slice.

Tea arrived. We’d asked for a pot of Darjeeling (which was described on the menu as being a tippy pekoe; I am not a tea expert, but it was extremely good) and a pot of Lapsang Souchong. Each came in a silver-plated pot with a handwritten label on the top, explaining which was which. We were given one little silver strainer per pot, lemon slices, cold milk and hot water to top the pots up with.

While the tea was cooling, we got to the important task of eating. This photograph of the excellent custard slice is slighly blurry because I feared expulsion from the family if I didn’t hurry up and let my mother-in-law eat it. She sliced it in half laterally, ate the base with a little custard and then ate the fondanty top with some more custard, all the time informing me that it is very easy to lose weight when you just put your mind to it. I do not know how she stays so thin.

I am rubbish at cooking patisserie. It’s fantastic to go somewhere to eat things you can’t cook yourself, making Betty’s one of my favourite places to eat in the country.

Full of sugar and love for our fellow man (especially if he is a Swiss confectioner), we staggered back up the hill to the house, where a vast spread had been set out, involving cheese scones, hams, a block of cheese the size of my head, pickled shallots, a loaf of bread and a big jar of pickle. I worry I will not have room for those curries next week.