Saturday, February 23, 2013

I made a cake

Sometimes I have nothing more to say than “Here, I made a cake. You can make it too and I hope you enjoy it as much as we did”.

That would be cool. Many people do just that, they don’t write long blog posts to accompany their recipes. I, on the other hand, enjoy writing so when I find myself struggling for words, I don’t like it.

So in the spirit of not beating myself too much about it, I’ll just keep it short and sweet. This is an everyday cake; don’t you hate that term by the way, “everyday cake”? It implies it’s not special but I think it is, it’s quite delicious actually and that’s what matters.

It has the combination of flavors that I once dreaded (before this ice cream changed my mind), banana and chocolate, and there are some ground hazelnuts in there that give it a slightly crunchy mouth-feel. A sprinkling of demerara sugar on top makes it playfully crispy and did I mention the chocolate is milk chocolate? Yes, and let me tell you, that’s a very good thing.

I haven’t used milk chocolate in ages, ever since I made this ice cream, but it’s so perfect in this cake, it really complements the rest of the ingredients well, and as it oozes out of a warm piece, it’s extremely tempting.

The crumb is dense and moist and the aroma of the banana will drive you crazy before the cake cools down enough to eat. You don’t have to eat it right then and there though, because the next day it’ll taste infinitely better as the flavors would’ve had the chance to develop.

I served it with crème fraîche sprinkled with a whiff of cinnamon and it was delightful, but a straight-up piece, along with a hot cup of coffee, will make the best breakfast ever.

It did this morning.

P.S. I believe that the two references to ice cream make it clear that I have summer on my mind. Dutch winters can have that effect on me.

P.P.S. As you know, I much prefer to express myself through music rather than words, so I'll leave you with this song that I'm listening to all day today. Join me.

Banana Cake with Ground Hazelnuts and Milk Chocolate Chunks

This is a substantial cake that fills you up and makes you rub your belly with contentment. Consider yourselves warned.

Yield: 1 cake / 8-10 pieces

180 g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
90 g caster sugar
90 g soft light brown sugar
80 g blanched unsalted hazelnuts
2 large eggs
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
180 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 medium-sized (about 300 g), very ripe (almost black) bananas, peeled and roughly cut into pieces
180 g good quality milk chocolate (or dark chocolate 55% cocoa solids if you want), cut into small chunks
1-2 Tbsp demerara sugar

Crème fraîche, for serving (optional)
Ground cinnamon, for serving (optional)

Special equipment: stand or hand-held mixer, small food processor, loaf pan (23 x 9 x 8 cm), baking paper

In a small skillet or sauté pan add the blanched hazelnuts and place over a medium heat. Toast the nuts, stirring often so they don’t get burned, until they become fragrant and brown lightly. Transfer them to your food processor and allow them to cool. Then grind them, being careful not to grind them too finely otherwise they’ll start releasing their natural oils and become pasty. You don’t want that.

Add them to a medium-sized bowl along with the flour and baking powder and mix with a spatula.

Preheat your oven to 170 degrees Celsius / 325 Fahrenheit.
Butter the bottom and sides of your loaf pan with butter and line it with baking paper.

In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the softened butter and the caster and soft light brown sugar and using the paddle attachment (or your hand-held mixer), beat on medium-high speed for about 5 minutes or until you have a creamy and light-colored mixture. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and then add the vanilla extract. Beat for 10 seconds and then add the ground hazelnuts-flour mixture to the bowl. Beat on low speed until just combined and you don’t see any white patches of flour. Fold in the chocolate chunks and the banana pieces. The resulting batter will be slightly thick.

Empty the cake batter into your prepared loaf pan, straighten the top with a spatula or the back of a spoon and sprinkle the top with the demerara sugar.

Place the pan on the low rack of your oven and bake for 30 minutes. Then transfer it to the middle rack of the oven and bake for a further 35-45 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. If the top of the cake darkens too quickly while baking, cover it lightly with aluminum foil.

Once ready, take the pan out of the oven and place it on a wire rack until the cake cools. Then remove it from the pan and allow it to cool completely on the rack.

Cut it into pieces and serve it, with some crème fraîche and a sprinkling of cinnamon if you want.

You can keep it at room temperature, covered, for 4-5 days. It will taste better as the days pass.

Adapted from Nigel Slater

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

For him

He makes me angry when he leaves his socks on the floor and his t-shirts on the dining room chairs. He infuriates me when he makes a mess in the kitchen whenever he prepares a sandwich. He annoys the heck out of me when he insists I can’t always be right on every single thing. He irritates me when he believes in me more than I could ever believe in myself. And that makes me love him even more.

I love the way I feel when I’m in his arms, like everything is alright in this world. I love the way he plays the guitar and how he inspires me to write music with him. I love the way he looks at me, like I’m the only woman on the face of the earth.

I never wait for Valentine’s Day to show him how I feel about him and I would never suggest to anyone to do that. Life is now. Life is our past and our future all wrapped into the present; into today. Time is fleeting and it’s never soon enough to show someone you love them.

I know how he likes to fall asleep. I know what makes him laugh. I know what makes him sad. I know how he takes his coffee. I know how he prefers his steak cooked. I know how he always wants to eat the crunchiest part of the potato.

I know what his favorite food is and I cook it for him every chance I get. Just like I did the other day. Not because it was Valentine’s Day, not because it was his birthday or a special occasion, but simply because I wanted to make him happy. To offer him something I knew he’d love.

A beautiful beef fillet steak with a chanterelle mushroom butter, flavored with garlic and herbs that slowly melted over the meat, and thin, very thin, fried potatoes with crispy edges and a soft center.

A match made in heaven of the perfectly cooked, succulent beef, the earthy, woody, golden chanterelles blended with thyme and parsley, the richness of the butter, and of course the fried potatoes, with my own little twist on them, a very thin rectangular cut that makes them delicate and perfectly delicious.

Beef Fillet Steaks with Chanterelle Mushroom Butter and Fried Potatoes

You can certainly use a rib-eye steak if you prefer it, but the tenderness of a fillet steak is unsurpassable. Choose a thick fillet steak, about 4 cm thick, as it will be juicier.

The way of cutting the potatoes is my own way of creating a different style of fried potatoes when I want something a little more special. I used a mandoline to cut them but you can also use a very sharp chef’s knife to do the job.

Yield: 2 main-course servings


for the mushroom butter
125 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
100 g chanterelle mushrooms, roughly chopped in small pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves (from 3-4 sprigs), chopped
2 Tbsp fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped

for the potatoes
3 large floury potatoes, about 1 kg
Olive oil or sunflower oil for frying

for the fillet steaks
2 beef or veal fillet steaks, 150-160 g each, with a 4 cm thickness (approximately)
1-2 Tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Special equipment: mandoline (optional), heavy-bottomed or cast-iron skillet or sauté pan


for the mushroom butter
In a medium-sized frying pan, add the olive oil and halved garlic clove and heat over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the chanterelle mushrooms and sauté for 1-2 minutes until they soften. Add a little salt and freshly ground black pepper, mix with a spoon and remove the pan from the heat. Allow the mushrooms to cool in the pan. Then, remove and discard the garlic.

In a medium-sized bowl, add the butter and mix it with a fork to soften it. Add the cooled mushrooms and the olive oil from the pan, the thyme and parsley and a little salt and pepper, and mix gently with a spoon. Cover with cling film and leave at room temperature until the beef fillet and potatoes are ready.

for the potatoes
Peel the potatoes and cut them into a rectangular shape. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, cut the potatoes into 2-3 mm-thick slices (cutting them on their longer side). Place them on kitchen paper in a single layer and pat them dry. This will help in the crisping up of their outer layer when frying. Leave them covered with the paper towels until you fry them.
It’s best if you fry the potatoes while the meat is cooking, since they take so little time to cook.

Heat the olive or sunflower oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. You can check if the oil is ready for frying by dropping in a 2.5 cm cube of white bread. If it browns in 60 seconds, it is ready, if it browns in less time then your oil is too hot and you should allow it to cool down. If you have a deep-fry thermometer or a deep-fryer, you should set it to 180 degrees Celsius / 350 Fahrenheit.
Deep-fry the potatoes in batches (you don’t want to overcrowd the pan otherwise the slices will stick to one another and you’ll have a mass of potatoes instead of individual slices) for about 4 minutes or until they take on a golden-brown color. Be careful not to cook them too long because they'll become hard. Also be careful not to burn them because they are very thin and catch easily. Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and place them on plate covered with kitchen paper to absorb the excess oil. They should be crunchy and a little soft, not like potato chips. Sprinkle them with salt.

for the fillet steaks
Remove the steaks from the refrigerator 1 hour before you want to cook them so they come to room temperature. Pat them dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture which can stop the meat from caramelizing in the pan.
In a heavy-bottomed or cast-iron skillet or sauté pan (I use a cast-iron skillet), add the olive oil and heat over high heat. Season the steaks with salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper on both sides. When the pan is very hot, add them to the pan, spaced apart. Cook them on medium-high heat on one side for 3 minutes and then flip them over and cook them for a further 2 minutes for medium-rare. Cook them more or less time according to how you like to eat your steaks. Bear in mind that the cooking times apply for steaks of aforementioned size and thickness. If your fillets are smaller/bigger or thinner/thicker than the ones indicated here then you'll need to adjust the cooking times.
Remove the steaks from the pan and place them on a large piece of aluminum foil. Cover the steaks with the foil and allow them to rest for 10 minutes. Resting the meat is very important because it relaxes and its juices spread equally throughout it. If you cut the meat straight after you've taken it off the heat, all the juices will run out instead of staying in and keeping the meat moist.

Serve the steaks, drizzled with the juices accumulated in the aluminum foil, with a good dollop of mushroom butter on top and the fried potatoes on the side, immediately.

You can keep the rest of the chanterelle mushroom butter in the fridge, covered well with plastic wrap for 1 day.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A sweet puff pastry tart

When you decide to make your own French puff pastry and you have that gorgeous dough sitting in your fridge, you don’t just stop at a tyropita (Greek cheese pie) but you think of something else to make as well. Something sweet this time.

My recipe for puff pastry yields quite a lot so whenever I make it, which is every couple of months or so, I always come up with a different version of what you see here, a puff pastry tart. During spring and summer it’s made with lots of different colorful fruits and during winter it’s made invariably with a little or, a lot of chocolate.

This version has all the good things gathered into one. Puff pastry, mascarpone, vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut praline.

The puff pastry is a miracle all on its own, especially when it’s made with your own two hands; the buttery, flaky and slightly caramelized dough begs to be bitten into. The mascarpone, sweetened by icing sugar and flavored with vanilla, is creamy and smooth, and the praline, that crunchy hazelnut-caramel concoction, is simply divine.

Praline is another little miracle of the pastry arts. It all starts with a simple caramel to which you add toasted or roasted hazelnuts (or almonds if you’re making almond praline). You stir everything around to coat each little nut with the golden-colored caramel and then spread it on a baking sheet. Once cooled and set, it goes in the food processor and from then on, three glorious things can come of it.

You can make a crushed hazelnut praline with small, visible pieces of hazelnut and caramel, a praline powder, or a praline paste. All three are full of flavor and texture and are so incredibly versatile that you can use them in or on cakes, tortes, ice creams, frankly any dessert can benefit from a little hazelnut praline.

But back to this tart which, incidentally, disappeared in a matter of minutes. It came as no surprise to me since who can possibly resist a crisped puff pastry filled with a sweet, billowy mascarpone cream, speckled with hundreds of diminutive vanilla seeds, a crunchy praline and piped dark chocolate? Well, no one.

Puff Pastry Tart with Vanilla Mascarpone, Crushed Hazelnut Praline and Melted Chocolate

I egg-washed and sprinkled the dough with caster sugar before baking it in order to primarily sweeten it, but to also caramelize it a bit, hence the dark color. Keep a close eye on it while baking though since the sugar tends to burn easily and gives off a bitter taste. I also made lots and lots of small holes in the raw dough because I didn’t want it to puff up like crazy.

As with the tyropita, I used homemade French puff pastry but you can certainly use store-bought, just make sure it’s made with butter. Whichever kind of puff pastry you use, make sure to thaw it properly. Remove it from the freezer and place it in the fridge 24 hours before using it.

Yield: 6 servings

350 g homemade puff pastry or 1 sheet of ready-made puff pastry
1 small egg, lightly beaten with a fork
2 Tbsp caster sugar
300 g mascarpone
1 vanilla bean, cut in half lengthwise and deseeded or 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
30 g icing sugar
Hazelnut praline (see recipe below)
70 g good quality dark chocolate 60% cocoa solids, cut into small pieces

Icing sugar, for dusting the tart

Special equipment: rolling pin (to roll out homemade puff pastry), baking paper, baking sheet, plastic wrap, pastry brush, hand-held mixer

If you’re using homemade puff pastry, dust a clean work surface and the top of the dough with a little flour and using a rolling pin, roll it out into an approximately 25 x 30 cm rectangle with a thickness of 0.3-0.4 cm. The thickness of the puff pastry is important because it determines the baking time. Trim off the edges of the dough, lightly score with a knife a frame and prick the dough inside that frame all over with a fork. This will prevent it from rising too much. Place the rolled out dough onto a piece of baking paper and onto your baking sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator.

Preheat your oven 185-190 degrees Celsius / 365-375 Fahrenheit.

Take the baking sheet out of the fridge, brush the dough with some of the beaten egg and sprinkle it with the sugar. Place the baking sheet straight in the preheated oven, on the low rack, and bake the puff pastry for 10 minutes. Then transfer it to the middle rack and bake for 15-20 minutes, until it has puffed and taken on a golden-brown color and the sugar has caramelized on top. Be careful not to burn it.

In the meantime, in a medium-sized bowl, add the mascarpone, scraped vanilla seeds or paste and the icing sugar and beat with a hand-held mixer until you have a creamy and smooth mixture.

Remove the puff pastry from the oven and allow it to cool.

Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie or in the microwave for a couple of minutes at 600 watts (I don’t usually melt chocolate in the microwave but for this small amount of chocolate it’s not worth the trouble of a bain-marie) and pour it into a cornet (paper cone) (you can watch this video on how to make one yourself).

Once the puff pastry has cooled, sprinkle it all over the top with some icing sugar and using a small offset spatula, cover it with the vanilla mascarpone. Sprinkle with lots of crushed hazelnut praline and pipe the melted chocolate on top to create a stripe pattern.

Serve your tart immediately cut into pieces.

Hazelnut Praline

As mentioned in the main body of the post, hazelnut praline can be processed to a chunky consistency, to a powder, or a paste, and it’s one of those useful and interesting recipes to have in your arsenal. And it’s very easy to make as well.

I used blanched hazelnuts but you can also use hazelnuts with skin. You’ll need to roast them on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes in a 175 degrees Celsius / 350 Fahrenheit preheated oven, checking them regularly and being careful not to burn them. Remove them from the oven and place them on a clean kitchen towel. Once cool, rub them while still inside the towel to remove their skins and use according to the recipe below.

Yield: about 250 g

130 g blanched unsalted hazelnuts
150 g caster sugar
60 ml water

Special equipment: baking sheet, baking paper or silicone sheet, candy thermometer (optional), small food processor

In a small skillet or sauté pan add the blanched hazelnuts and place over a medium heat. Toast the nuts, stirring often so they don’t get burned, until they become fragrant and brown lightly. Transfer them to a small bowl.

Line your baking sheet with baking paper or a silicone sheet.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar and water and place over a medium heat. Stir with a heatproof spatula until the sugar dissolves in the water, turn heat up to medium-high and then allow the magic to happen. The sugar will start to boil, do not stir at all because it will crystallize and it will be ruined, but stay close and keep an eye on it because you don’t want your caramel to burn. It will take about 7 minutes for the sugar to turn into a dark golden caramel. The smell of burnt sugar is an indication that it’s ready. If you have a candy thermometer it should read 187 degrees Celsius / 370 Fahrenheit.

Take the pan off the heat immediately and add the toasted hazelnuts to the pan. Stir briefly with a heatproof spatula to coat them with the caramel and empty everything onto the prepared baking sheet, spreading it quickly with the help of the spatula. Allow to cool completely. It will take 25-30 minutes.

Once cooled, break the praline with your hands into pieces and add them to your food processor. Grind the praline and empty it into a glass jar.

Use part of it on your puff pastry tart and you can keep the rest in the refrigerator, in a sealed glass jar, for 1 week.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Tyropita

I have no idea how I can successfully catch a cold, which of course develops into a full-fledged flu, the worst possible time when I’m incredibly busy and can’t afford to be sick. Yes, folks, let the complaining begin.

I have the flu, or to be perfectly honest, I’m almost over it because if I were smack in the middle of suffering from it, I wouldn’t be able to write a single word, let alone a whole blog post.

I believe I’m very easy-going when I’m sick. I’m high-maintenance the rest of the time so I give people around me a break when I’m under the weather. Ha! Honestly though, I just sit quietly on the couch, watching my tv shows and films, falling asleep, making my own cup of tea and soup, unlike some other people (let’s not name names) that demand to be waited on hand and foot when they have a plain cold.

But let’s get to the tyropita (τυρόπιτα / pronounciation: tee-roh-pee-tah), the Greek cheese pie, which is the reason I got off my cozy couch. The word tyropita is not a simple word in the Greek language. There’s not a single Greek out there who doesn’t have a very specific image of tyropita in their mind the second they hear the word.

It’s one of the most well-known pies in Greek cuisine (next to spanakopita), a pie that everyone knows how to make and that everyone certainly knows how to devour in record time. And of course everyone has their favorite kind, because yes, there are different kinds of tyropita. Those can either depend on the type of dough used (phyllo, kourou, puff pastry), or the type of cheese(s) used, the most common of course being feta.

My ideal tyropita is one made with puff pastry. That’s the way my mom always made it, and still does. I have no idea why she prefers sfoliata (Greek word for puff pastry) to the traditional Greek phyllo, I’ve never asked her, as I’ve never had any complaints. I greedily ate my piece every single time she prepared tyropita.

Whenever I make my own puff pastry, I always bake a tray of tyropita. I use feta, ricotta (anthotyro when I’m in Greece) and a béchamel sauce all mixed together to create the filling. The result is a salty and slightly sweet cheese pie with that incomparable flavor and texture of puff pastry encasing the cheeses. A flaky, golden-brown and buttery puff pastry that makes my tyropita the best there is.

Tyropita – Greek Cheese Pie

You can use either homemade puff pastry (like I did), or ready-made. Just make sure the store-bought one is made with butter and not vegetable fat.
Whichever kind of puff pastry you use, make sure to thaw it properly. Remove it from the freezer and place it in the fridge 24 hours before using it.

On cooking puff pastry: The bigger the change in temperature, the more dramatic the puff will be. If for example you take the rolled out pastry straight from the fridge and put it in a preheated oven, it will rise like crazy.
For this tyropita, once you assemble the pie, you must put it in the fridge for 30 minutes while you preheat your oven and then put it straight in.

The recipe for the béchamel sauce is the classic French one and it’s creamy and delicious and it’ll make your tyropita taste incredibly good.

Yield: 1 tyropita / 16 small pieces


for the béchamel sauce
250 ml fresh whole milk
20 g (1½ Tbsp) butter, unsalted
20 g (2 level Tbsp) all-purpose flour
Freshly ground white pepper

300 g feta (Greek of course), grated
250 g ricotta (or Greek anthotyro if you can find it), crumbled
Freshly ground white pepper
600 g homemade puff pastry or 2 large sheets of ready-made puff pastry

A little butter for greasing the pan

Special equipment: box grater, whisk, rolling pin (to roll out homemade puff pastry), baking pan/tray (34 x 28 cm)


for the béchamel sauce
In a small, heavy-based saucepan, add the butter and melt over a low heat. Add the flour and using a whisk, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes until you have a white roux.
While whisking, pour the milk in the saucepan, turn heat up to medium and allow the mixture to come to the boil, whisking continuously to prevent lumps.
Once the béchamel comes to the boil, turn heat down to low and simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring with the whisk every so often, until it thickens. You don’t want the sauce to be too thick though but a little runny so it can be easily mixed with the cheeses.
Season with salt to your liking, add a little white pepper and allow the sauce to cool.

In a large bowl, add the cooled béchamel, the two cheeses and a sprinkling of white pepper and mix with a spatula.

Grease the bottom and sides of your pan with butter.

If you’re using homemade puff pastry, take the dough and divide it into two equal pieces. Dust a clean work surface and the top of the dough with flour and using a rolling pin, roll out the first piece of dough into a rectangle, a little bigger than the size of the pan, with a thickness of 0.2-0.3 cm. The thickness of the puff pastry is important because it determines the baking time. Line the bottom of the pan with the dough (or the ready-made puff pastry), leaving an overhang on all sides and add the filling. Spread it around evenly with a spatula and grind some white pepper on top.
Roll out the second piece of dough (or use the ready-made puff pastry) and place it on top of the filling. Press together the two sheets of puff pastry at the edges of the tyropita and cut with a knife the extra overhanging dough, leaving just a little around the edges. Crimp up the edges of the puff pastry.
With a knife, score the pie, creating 16 equal-sized square pieces and score the crimped up edges as well.

Note: Don’t score all the way down to the filling because the cheeses will ooze out while baking.

Place the baking pan in the refrigerator for 30 minutes and preheat your oven to 185-190 degrees Celsius / 365-375 Fahrenheit.

Take the baking pan out of the fridge and place it straight on the middle rack of the oven. Bake the tyropita for 55-60 minutes until the dough puffs up and takes on a golden-brown color.

Take it out of the oven and allow it to cool. As it cools, the puff pastry will gradually deflate. Cut the tyropita into pieces and serve.

You can keep it in a cool place in your kitchen, covered lightly with aluminum foil for 1-2 days.