Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Penne with sun-dried tomato, red chilli and walnut pesto, rocket and burrata

My day started weird on Monday. I didn’t hear the alarm go off because I was having such an intense dream I didn’t even realize it was going off for over ten minutes before my boyfriend finally woke me up.

I didn’t have time to have breakfast before an appointment with my physiotherapist— I have a sprained arm that hurts like hell, even as I write this now, which I shouldn’t be doing incidentally—, and when I got there, ten minutes early as always (I’m prompt like that), I waited for a good fifteen minutes for my physio to come pick me up. When she finally came down she said my appointment was an hour earlier. I was looking at her with my mouth and eyes wide open. I never make mistakes like that. Turns out I didn’t. She did. I was the one who had to live with it.

I left angry and a little sad because the pain was worse that day. I needed her healing hands.
When I got home, a thousand emails were waiting for me and some bad news from S. I wanted to cry but held back the tears. It wasn’t that I was sad, I was frustrated by the way my day was going. I pressed on. I made a strong cup of espresso, I went through my emails, worked until the afternoon and then I realized I had to make dinner.

On days like these, when I don’t have much time to think let alone plan a meal, I divert to pasta. That savior, always there to make even the worst day feel good. Especially a winter’s day.

Pasta like this one. With a sun-dried tomato, red chilli and walnut pesto, rocket leaves and burrata; another miracle of the Italian cheese world.

The chunky pesto is a fiery one, rendered as such by the hot fresh red chilli, with a musky and deep flavor from the sun-dried tomatoes, umami flavor from the parmesan, pungency from the garlic, nutty earthiness from the walnuts.
It’s strong and robust, with intense flavors; dare I say, the perfect wintertime pesto to color and flavor your pasta. It also adds texture, getting inside the hole and ridges of the penne, filling them, coating them, making the dish utterly delicious.

The burrata brings creaminess and richness and goes well with the pesto as it mellows out its sharp, spicy and hot yet balanced flavors, while the rocket adds pepperiness, freshness and a slight bitterness that’s quite fitting.

Penne with sun-dried tomato, red chilli and walnut pesto, rocket and burrata

Burrata (which means buttery in Italian) is a fresh Italian cheese made from an outer layer of mozzarella that is filled with cream and mozzarella curds that ooze out when you tear it open. It is one of the most spectacular cheeses I have ever eaten particularly because of its super rich, creamy and chewy texture, and its milky, slightly sour and sweet, buttery flavor that is, however, not at all overwhelming.

Adding in the pesto one chilli with its seeds like I did, makes it quite hot, so if you’re not keen on too hot flavors, remove the seeds or add half a chilli, even though this is what really makes the pesto and the dish at large, when it mingles with the rest of the ingredients, bringing it to life.

Casarecce pasta would also be great in this dish as would any other kind of short pasta with holes, ridges or cavities to catch and hold that beautiful pesto.

Yield: 4 servings


for the pesto
50 g sun-dried tomatoes (that’s about 10-11 sun-dried tomato halves), (not the ones kept in oil)
2 garlic cloves
1 large fresh red chilli with seeds, sliced
½ tsp Demerara sugar
25 g walnut halves (heaped ¼ cup)
7 Tbsp (100 ml) extra virgin olive oil
10 g (¼ cup) grated parmesan

for the pasta
500 g small dried penne rigate (with ridges)
2 balls of burrata
4 large handfuls fresh rocket leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
A little extra virgins olive oil to drizzle over the top (optional)

Special equipment: small food processor, rasp grater, colander


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

Add all the ingredients for the pesto except the parmesan in the food processor and process until you have a coarse mixture. Add the parmesan and process until you have a somewhat chunky pesto. It’s not going to be smooth, it will be grainy, with a nice texture. Set aside.

for the pasta
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil over high heat and add the penne. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard) or cook to your liking.
Strain the pasta but make sure to keep 5 cups of pasta water, to be on the safe side. It is valuable and will help you adjust the consistency of the sauce.
Return the strained pasta to the pot, add 1 cup of pasta water and then the pesto, but don’t add all the pesto at once, add ½-¾ at first and see how much more it needs. Mix through with a soft rubber spatula being careful not break up the penne. Add as much pasta water needed to loosen the sauce and achieve a creamy and moist consistency. You don’t want the pasta to be dry. Add ¾ of the rocket leaves and stir gently through. You can add more pesto (or pasta water) if you think it needs it.

Serve immediately in individual plates. You can drizzle with a bit of olive oil on top. Then grate a generous amount of parmesan, add a big spoonful of burrata and sprinkle with black pepper and the rest of the rocket leaves.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Homemade peanut butter

I have a confession to make. I love peanut butter and if I could eat it every day, I would. Alas, it’s calorific so I can’t, or I would have to exercise seven days a week and I can barely handle two, but that’s another topic for another day. Back to peanut butter.

Yes, I love the stuff, and a long time ago, I was somewhat addicted to commercial peanut butter, of the unhealthy kind. I wised up, though, and started making my own some years ago; a healthier version of it, without all the additives, preservatives, tons of salt, sugar and all the rest bad-for-you ingredients.

I have always been partial to cashew butter which is the best nut butter there is in my humble opinion, but there’s something about peanut butter, particularly the homemade kind, that makes it quite impossible to resist.

I love slathering it on top of my toast (oftentimes with an extra sprinkling of flaked sea salt), eating it, secretly, straight from the jar with a spoon, baking with it, of course —hint: peanut butter brownies to come are here!—, adding it in my morning granola or in savory dishes like stir-fries, Asian-inspired sauces, and the list goes on and on.

It’s easy and quick to make, and all you need is a good food processor to make it happen.
So here is my version, hope you enjoy.

Homemade peanut butter

It’s best if you use raw peanuts that you’ll roast yourselves rather than already roasted peanuts, as their flavor will be more intense thus making your peanut butter more flavorful.

You can skip the ½ tsp of Demerara sugar if you want, but I think it adds just a hint of caramel-y sweetness that is very appealing.

Makes 1 heaped cup

250 g raw, unsalted peanuts
30 ml (2 Tbsp) peanut oil (or other mild-flavored vegetable oil)
½ tsp sea salt flakes (I used Maldon) or coarse sea salt
½ tsp Demerara sugar (you could also use coconut sugar)

Special equipment: small rimmed baking sheet, baking paper, food processor (preferably with a strong motor as it will work for a few minutes straight)

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Line a small, rimmed baking sheet with baking paper and spread the peanuts on top in one layer. Place on the middle rack of the preheated oven and roast the peanuts for 7-8 minutes, stirring them halfway through so they roast evenly on both sides. Keep an eye on them so they don’t catch.

Remove them from the oven and let them cool completely on the baking sheet. Then, place them in a food processor, process them until quite fine and add the peanut oil. Grind the peanuts until they release their natural oils and become somewhat creamy, for about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl of the food processor halfway through with a rubber spatula. At this point, the peanut butter will be somewhat grainy. Add the sea salt flakes and Demerara sugar and process for a further 2-3 minutes or until it liquefies and becomes even creamier, scraping again down the sides of the bowl of the food processor halfway through with a rubber spatula. If you like your nut butter crunchy, add a few more peanuts at the end of processing.

Empty the peanut butter in a clean, airtight, glass container or jar.

It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Chocolate chestnut brownies

A little while ago, I made these brownies for the first time. I love chestnuts and I tend to use them in savory and sweet dishes regularly, especially during the autumn and winter months, but never had I used them before in brownies. It was a revelation.

Chestnut and chocolate is, unsurprisingly, a match made in heaven, and these brownies are a shining example of this match. They are fudgy and dense yet soft and light. They have the full, intense flavor of dark chocolate and cocoa powder, with the sweet earthiness and nutty flavor of the chestnut and the salty kick of sea salt flakes that brings all the flavors to life, balancing the sweetness of it all.

The swirls of chestnut cream, soft and gooey, peaking out from the fudgy, dense brownies or hiding inside them, revealing themselves with each bite, create a flavor and texture contrast that I love.

Ordinarily, I don’t prefer the edges of brownies but the center pieces; with these brownies, though, where the chestnut cream meets the edges of the brownie and it becomes deliciously chewy, it makes those edges utterly irresistible to me. Perhaps this will happen to you to. Let me know if you do make them.

And if you’re in the mood for more sweet and savory recipes with chestnuts, check out these:
Sweet chestnut cream (Crème de marrons)
Chocolate and chestnut truffles
Chestnut cream truffles
Chestnut tiramisu
Chestnut ice cream
Chestnut soup with Port
Chestnut crêpes with creamy wild mushroom filling

Chocolate chestnut brownies

No need to bring out a mixer, this is all done by hand, albeit it needs some elbow grease to achieve a smooth batter. So if you’re having trouble handling it by hand, use an electric hand-held mixer but don’t overbeat the eggs and the rest of ingredients as you don’t want to incorporate too much air into the batter. We’re going for fudgy texture, not light and airy.

I’ve made these brownies with both homemade sweet chestnut cream and ready-made, and I have to say that I like both versions. The homemade chestnut spread is somewhat more creamy and smooth and less dense/sticky than the commercial one. If you choose to use ready-made sweet chestnut spread, make sure to use good quality because it will make a difference.

*Don’t use chestnut purée instead of chestnut cream because they are different both in flavor and texture. Chestnut cream or crème de marrons is puréed chestnuts with sugar and vanilla, it is sweet and has (obviously) a creamy texture, whereas chestnut purée is cooked and then puréed chestnuts, it is unsweetened and has a very thick and dense texture.

Yield: 16 brownies

115 g unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus extra for greasing the pan
170 g good quality dark chocolate (55-60% cocoa solids), cut into small pieces
25 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder
3 large eggs
200 g caster sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt
140 g all-purpose flour
300 g sweet chestnut cream/spread (not unsweetened chestnut purée, *read more about this above), homemade or store-bought
Sea salt flakes for sprinkling on top (I use Maldon)

Special equipment: 20 x 20 cm baking pan, baking paper, large wire whisk

Preheat your oven to 175°C.

Butter the bottom and sides of the pan and line with baking paper, leaving an overhang on all sides.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the butter and melt over a medium-low heat, stirring often with a whisk. Once melted, add the chocolate and stir continuously until it melts. Take the pan off the heat, add the cocoa powder and whisk until incorporated and you have a smooth mixture. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking vigorously until you have a smooth and shiny mixture before adding the next egg. Then add the sugar, the vanilla and a pinch of sea salt and whisk vigorously again to combine. Finally, add the flour and whisk just until incorporated and there are no visible white patches from the flour.

Pour half of the brownie mixture into the prepared baking pan and smooth it out. Add 1/3 of the chestnut spread in dollops on top of the brownie mixture and using a skewer or the handle of a spoon, marble it gently. Pour the rest of the brownie mixture on top, smooth it out and, finally, dollop the rest of the chestnut spread on top of the brownie mixture. Again, marble it gently. Don’t overdo it as you want to have patches of chestnut spread in your brownies. Sprinkle the top with 3 good pinches of flaked sea salt, rubbing it between your fingertips to make it a little finer as you sprinkle it.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake the brownies for about 30 minutes. The center of the brownies should feel just slightly firm.

Take the pan out of the oven and place on a wire rack. Leave to cool for 30 minutes, then using the overhanging baking paper take the brownies out of the pan and leave on the wire rack until completely cool. Then slice into 16 squares using a long and thin knife.

They keep excellently for 5 days at room temperature in an airtight container, or for a week in the fridge. I prefer to keep them in fridge as I like their taste better when they’re cold.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Easy chocolate fudge with hazelnuts and shortbread cookies

Happy New Year! Happy and Healthy 2018! May it bring to you all that you wish for and more!

Yesterday, on the first day of the year, I cooked, a lot. Greek slow-cooked leg of lamb with potatoes and this fudge. Because I hadn’t made a single sweet chocolate dessert throughout the holidays and I was feeling deprived.

This is the easiest chocolate fudge and the most delicious to boot. Dark and a little bit of milk chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, a dash of vanilla, a smidgen of ground espresso beans, a big handful of hazelnuts and leftover kourabiedes (Greek Christmas shortbread cookies), that you can substitute with any kind of shortbread you have on hand.

Cut into small cubes, no more than two bites each, it is quite sweet after all, it’s the best little sweet treat to have anytime of the year. Hope you enjoy!

Easy chocolate fudge with hazelnuts and shortbread cookies

Use good quality chocolate; it will make a difference.
This is a slightly chewy fudge, dense and ultra chocolatey with notes of hazelnuts and buttery shortbread.

Yield: 56 small squares

400 g sweetened condensed milk (1 can)
425 g good quality dark chocolate (55-60% cocoa solids), chopped
85 g good quality milk chocolate (at least 35% cocoa solids), chopped
40 g (2 Tbsp) unsalted butter
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp ground espresso beans (or instant espresso powder)
Pinch of sea salt
100 g blanced hazelnuts, finely chopped
3-4 small kourabiedes (mine were two bites each) or other shortbread cookies, crumbled/crushed with your hands (if you’re using kourabiedes, tap off the icing sugar)

A bit of vegetable oil for greasing the pan

Special equipment: 20x20cm square pan, plastic wrap, baking paper

Grease the bottom and sides of the pan with some vegetable oil. Cover the sides and bottom of the pan with plastic wrap, leaving a big overhang to be able to cover completely the finished fudge. This will also help you to lift the fudge and remove it from the pan once it has chilled.

Add the sweetened condensed milk, dark and milk chocolate, butter, vanilla, espresso and salt in a medium-sized, glass heatproof bowl and set it over a pan of barely simmering water (bain-marie). Stir with a heatproof silicone spatula until the chocolate and butter has melted and you have a smooth and glossy mixture. It will be somewhat dense.

Take the bowl off the pan, add the chopped hazelnuts and crumbled shortbread cookies, and mix them in the fudge with the spatula to distribute evenly. Empty the mixture into the prepared square pan and smooth the top. If there’s any excess grease on top of the fudge, dab it with a paper towel. Cover the fudge gently with the overhanging plastic wrap and leave for 30 minutes to cool at room temperature. Then place in the fridge for about 4 hours or until is has chilled thoroughly and it is set.

Unwrap the top of the plastic wrap from the fudge and use it to lift the chilled fudge from the pan. Lay a piece of baking paper on a clean work surface and turn the fudge over onto the baking paper. Peel off the plastic wrap and using a long and thin knife, cut the fudge into 56 small squares.

You can keep the fudge covered with baking paper and plastic wrap in the fridge for a week.