Wednesday, 28 April 2010

ewe must try this: runny cheese fun with torta cañarejal

torta canarejal 1

I've been eating 'funny' (as one of my grandmothers used to say) cheeses for very many years. My dad has always loved cheese and, way back when I was a wee thing, at the end of each week, instead of spending his wages at the pub, he used to seek out the best cheesemonger he could find. Armed with his parcels of cheesy goodness, he'd then stink out his fellow commuters on the train home. My, how they must have loved him, particularly in the dog days of summer. You have to bear in mind, too, that this was back in olden times when most folks were used to little more than plastic cheese, and Red Leicester represented the height of exotica. Looking back, I'm surprised MI5 weren't watching such a dangerous subversive.

Roll on a few decades and both his and my love of weird and wonderful cheeses happily endure. Lord knows how many I must have tried, eaten, and generally gorged on, but the figure must run into the many hundreds. I love them ALL. (Well, all except the fudgy Norwegian Gjetost, which - try as I might - I just can't get along with. It messes with my tastebuds and brain.)

But until a few days ago, there was one cheese that I'd not come across before. It was being pushed forward by my local deli, owned by two chaps who have a particular penchant for all things Spanish and Italian. And that's it, at the top of my post - torta cañarejal, a Spanish ewe's milk cheese.

So far, so cheesey. I asked about it. 'Slice the top off, dip things like crudites into it, and eat. You don't have to do anything to it - no baking, no nothing.'

Crikey. So that's one over on Vacherin, then, isn't it? No baking, even. Dippy cheese to go, no less. How very fab. Better give it a whirl, then.

And so we did.

Step 1. Slice the top off. This, I can do.

torta canarejal 2

Step 2. Have crudités prepared for dunking. This I can do, too. We have carrots, roasted cauliflower (in rapeseed oil), and baby potatoes slathered in butter and wild garlic. Oh, and some leafy green stuff to cancel out the cholesterol, natch.

torta canarejal 3

Step 3. Dunk. Easier said than done. This baby is VERY runny. In fact, a spoon is a good plan.

torta canarejal 4

Step 4. Repeat.

torta canarejal 5

Step 5. Repeat.

torta canarejal 6

Step 6. Repeat until fade.

torta canarejal 7

But the fun doesn't end there. Oh, no. Here's where there's another advantage over Vacherin - you can eat the outer, firmer layer and rind! That's if you have any room left. I didn't, but still went ahead anyway. Some things are just too good to pass up.

Torta cañarejal is not only good, it's a must if you're a cheese-lover. It's mellow but with a distinctive tang of sheep, slightly sweet (Ferran Adrià used to serve it with red fruits and honeyed meringues, apparently), and creamy. It has something of a Camembert about it, but is infinitely more interesting than that.

But, best of all, it's possibly the most edible fun you can have with a whole cheese. For 2 cheese lovers, it's the perfect tasty, simple, and sharing meal. Well, I say 'perfect'. Let's just say it's all fine and dandy until the level of the runny cheese starts getting low. At that point... well, it can become a bit of a no-holds-barred fight to the finish ;)

Do you love someone enough to give them the last scoop of runny cheese? Share one of these (or a Vacherin, if you must - though you'll find they've just gone out of season now) and you'll soon find out...

Monday, 19 April 2010

American dreams: chocolate pecan pie

chocolate pecan pie 1
pecan pie goodness ready to go into the oven

Back in the rose-tinted hazy mists of time, when I was barely taller than a grasshopper's knee and CHiPS (or rather, Erik Estrada) was the hottest thing on telly, my dad took me on my first holiday to the States.

To say I loved it would be an understatement. For a kid of my age, it was paradise. Huge cars, fast food, seemingly limitless Coke, McDonald's, 24-hour TV, endless sunshine... Never mind that those are all the things I'd go out of my way to avoid now (well, perhaps not the sunshine) - back then, it was an utterly, mind-bogglingly wonderful revelation.

Food memories stand out, even after all these years... of lots of firsts - my first 'easy-over' egg, giant chocolate chip cookie, hamburger, fried chicken, real coffee, peanut and jelly sandwich, 'fries', and... pecan pie.

Of all of them, pecan pie has endured as one of my food loves. Until recently, I've scarcely seen it over here, and given that for the most part, I can rarely be bothered to make pastry, I've never made it myself. But now, all that's going to change. For I've found a recipe that (a) makes pastry a doddle, and (b) also adds chocolate to the mix. And it's no secret that when chocolate goes into a cake or pudding, I can offer no resistance. NONE. WHATSOEVER.

This recipe, from Linda Collister's Chocolate book hit the spot for me. Some of the sugar and butter combines to form a thin fudgy layer on the bottom of the pie, while above it sits the light, almost fluffy chocolate and pecan filling. If you use (as I did) dark chocolate with around 70% cocoa solids, the taste is wickedly dark and rich.

You'll need:

Pastry - 1.5 cups plain flour, more for dusting; pinch salt; 1 tbsp sugar, 1 stick unsalted butter; 1 extra large egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp cold water

Filling - 3 tbsps unsalted butter, softened; 3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar; 2/3 cup corn syrup or golden syrup; 3 extra large eggs, beaten; 1 tsp vanilla extract; 3.5oz bittersweet chocolate, melted; 1 cup pecans

Method - put flour, salt, sugar and butter in food processor, and process until you have fine breadcrumbs. With processor still running, add the egg yolk and water through the feed tube. Run machine until dough comes together. If there are dry crumbs, add teaspoon or so extra water.

Put dough on floured surface and roll out to a large circle about 2 inches bigger than the tart pan, then use to line the pan. Prick with a fork, then chill for 15mins. Line with parchment paper and baking beans, and back blind at 350F for about 12 minutes. Remove beans and paper, and bake for another 12 minutes. Let cool.

Put better, sugar, and corn syrup in a mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Gradually beat in the eggs and then the vanilla extract. Stir in melted chocolate followed by the pecans. Pour into pie crust and bake at 350F for about 35 minutes until just firm to touch. Remove from oven and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Best eaten within 4 days.)

It's great on its own...

chocolate pecan pie 2

yep, it's mighty fine...

... but really, it's just all the better and so much more of a complete, authentic experience if you go the whole American hog and have it with a generous scoop of the best vanilla ice cream you can buy.

chocolate pecan pie 3

but, ah, that's the baby...

So, go on. Make, eat, then lie back and think of, er, the United States...

Saturday, 10 April 2010

the simple things in life: The Draft House, Clapham

I don't know about you, but there are times when I want to go out for a simple, tasty meal, cooked well, with something decent to drink on the side. And not to have to pay a ridiculous price for the privilege.

Draft House interior

could this be the place?

For a big city, London has an awful lot of places that don't fit the bill. Yes, there are thousands of cafes, bistros, and restaurants in this huge metropolis, but a dismayingly large proportion of them disappoint on one criterion or another. For that reason, I'm always on the lookout for new (whether literally, or just new to me) venues that promise the holy grail.

A few months ago, Twitter was a-flutter with rumours of a venture that sounded as though the grail might be opening soon and, better still, opening near me. The omens were good - Charlie McVeigh, owner of the acclaimed Le Cafe Anglais, was the man with the vision to turn what was a branch of the Pitcher & Piano into something, well, rather less of a pig's ear. (Actually, that's rather unfair to pigs' ears which, despite one or two pronouncements on MasterChef, are quite a treat, as finalist Alex Rushmer can demonstrate.)

Initial reviews were favourable, with special mention going to the Draft House's excellent range of ales...

Draft House bar

what you see in the picture amounts to about half the choice of ales on offer

... and its novel idea of offering them in third of a pint measures, as well as the traditional half and pint.

Draft House ales

from l-r: Wandle (quite possibly THE holy grail), Bitter & Twisted, Porterhouse Red

I visited for the first time for lunch on New Year's Day, not least on the basis that you might as well start the year in the manner in which you intend to carry on. Baked eggs, chips, sprout tops (where else serves sprout tops, I ask you?) and a selection of ales went down rather well, to say the least. Dinner there a few weeks ago involving meaty steaks and burgers scored highly, too. After a third visit last week I thought it was time I should give this happy, cheery place a little shout-out.

Because what they do here is good. Very good. And at very reasonable prices. It's not frilly, complicated, smoke-and-mirrors stuff. Instead, it's rather joyous food made from wonderful, carefully selected (and thankfully seasonal - the menu changes accordingly) ingredients by chefs who evidently take pride in their cooking.

And so, this is the kind of nosh they come up with:

Draft House squid and chorizo

squid and chorizo in their liquor

Draft House eggs benedict 1

eggs florentine, the uncut version

Draft House eggs benedict 2

eggs florentine, the cut version

Draft House scrambled eggs

scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (well, obviously)

Draft House rhubarb jelly and cream

rhubarb jelly and cream. In a half pint glass. Yay! Definitely not for kids ;)

You'll be relieved to know that I'm not going to ramble on and give you my pronouncements on everything we ate. But let me just say this - these dishes might look simple, but a great many places make a bloomin' great hash of them. At the Draft House, they look good, are cooked to perfection, taste fantastic and just as they should. I seriously doubt whether anywhere in London does eggs or greens (apart from sprout tops, I've eaten their equally meaty and minerally spring greens and spinach) consistently as well as they do them here. The jelly was not only fun, but truly delicious - not too sharp, but full of rhubarby spritz and tang nonetheless. And far from being just a extraneous afterthought (as the ugly cynic in me rather expected), the addition of the rich, gloopy, buttery cream took the whole thing up another notch - the combination with the jelly was a glorious revelation. Jelly and cream? Who knew?

And then there's the ales... Which are probably worthy of a entirely new post. Let's just say they're worth the visit.

The only downside to all this is that, inevitably, The Draft House has become a very popular place in a very short space of time. But the good news is that the eaterie part (separate from the bar area) takes reservations, so if you can plan a little ahead, you can still get a table even at the busiest periods.

Just don't nick my table. Please.

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