what the fig?

The first time I tried figs I thought that they were the worst. I was at university and my mum included a packet of dried figs in a package she sent me because she knew they were disgusting and thought it would be funny. Thanks Mum, happy Mother’s Day.

Years later, when I had put this trauma behind me and built up the courage to try figs again (fresh this time), I was shocked to discover that I had been giving them a bad rap for far too long. They are really unlike anything I had ever tasted before; a perfect balance of nectary sweetness while still seeming wholesomely savoury.

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In this part of the world they can be a bit pricey so I have always been a little reluctant to experiment with them but went out for dinner s few weeks ago and had the most incredible baked figs that I could resist giving them a go in my own kitchen.

This is a great dish and so versatile! You can serve it as a snack, a starter or even a dessert, and it looks beautiful!

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Slice as many fresh figs as you like in half, I would say about two per person as a constraint against over-indulging. I’m still not a fan of measuring anything properly so this recipe is really measured in pinches and dashes. Top with a tiny dollop of butter, an equal amount of honey and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon. Admire their beauty and take in the scent of the flavours melding together.

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Bake at 180°C for 15 to 20 minutes – it really depends on the ripeness of the fruit you’re using but in my opinion, this is a prime example of when the saying ‘low and slow’ applies.

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A couple of minutes before I took my oozing little beauties out of the oven, I topped each with a tiny ball of goats cheese – it adds a savoury element to make it not-just-a-dessert food and the chèvre compliments the honey and cinnamon oh so well.

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The one problem I find with these bite-sized morsels is how moreish they are – I honestly believe I could eat my bodyweight in them!

 

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blue cheese-stuffed mushrooms

This is the last Christmas post. Promise.

Mushrooms, stuffed with blue cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and roasted until golden. Simple as that.

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I tried a recipe from my pile of cookbooks a few months ago where an egg was cracked into a Portobello mushroom and baked until they were both supposedly cooked and I wasn’t a huge fan – I loved the concept but I was faced with the dilemma of having a runny egg and undercooked mushroom or a cooked mushroom with an overdone egg; double edged sword in my opinion.

But I took the idea and ran with it regardless. For this dish I used brown button mushrooms which are smaller than Portobello so they cooked faster and I knew the cheese would be fantastic at any consistency.

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I began with about 15 mushrooms, peeled and stalks removed, I mixed 100grams of Danish blue vein cheese with a dollop of Greek yoghurt until it was nicely combined and relatively smooth. Next, I put them in the fridge so the cheese could set and had another glass of champagne.

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I then proceeded to coat the mushrooms in whisked egg and rolled them in a mixture of panko breadcrumbs, flour, salt and pepper before roasting them in a hot oven for about 20 minutes.

What I like about panko breadcrumbs above everything is their size; they aren’t as fine as regular breadcrumbs and maintain a nice crunch after cooking instead of absorbing too much moisture.

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You could use any kind of cheese you want for this – I would recommend something creamy like gorgonzola, feta or chèvre but you could also make it work with cubes of cheddar or camembert.

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I want to be able to say that this dish is wonderful hot or cold, and would make a great accompaniment to a cheeseboard or meze plater, but all of the ones I prepared had vanished seconds after the dish was placed on the table – an excuse to make them again, I say!

 

aubergine and sweet potato summer stack

Even though the in-between parts of seasons are problematic for guessing the weather forecast or planning a temperature-appropriate outfit, they are a great for a varying abundance of produce.

Unless you’re going to buy your produce imported or from a greenhouse, things that I try and steer away from, this recipe really is only viable while aubergines are in season. Even though it is warm and roasted, there are so many fresh and raw elements that it makes sense to limit it to the warmer months.

My aubergine and sweet potato stack is a dish stuck somewhere in between a roast vege salad and a plate of raw greens… in a good way! Layers of soft and warm eggplant, crisp discs of sweet potato and spinach leaves full of crunch, topped off with sweet smoked bell peppers, soft crumbly feta and capers for a salty pop.

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It’s so easy; the hardest part is stacking it all up without the tower toppling over!

Begin by roasting an entire red bell pepper under the grill of an oven, or, if you’re feeling dangerous, on a gas stove element. Roast on a high heat until the skin begins to blacken and blister; this will take a while but keep an eye on it and rotate it for even charring.

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Use this time to slice an aubergine into 1cm thick slithers, and one large sweet potato into 2cm thick discs. Getting a uniform consistency with the sweet potato will be difficult because they are such a beautifully ugly vegetable (one of the reasons I love them so!), but having nice even slices will make the stacking part a bucket load easier!

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Drizzle them in olive oil, turn the oven to bake, lower the temperature to 180°C and switch them the with pepper. If possible, bake the vegetables on different trays and place the aubergine on a lower shelf inside the oven. By arranging the trays like this, the eggplant slices will slowly bake without crisping, and by the time the sweet potato is cooked tender and golden, the aubergine will have garnered a soft texture; not too crisp but no longer tough and chewy.

Flip each rondelle after about 15 minutes and continue baking for a further 20 or until they look like they’re done.

In the meantime, slice the top off the smoky bell pepper and peel off the skin so you are just left with the tender red flesh. Slice into thin slithers and that component is complete!

Wash the leaves of one bunch of spinach and tear the leaves into manageable bite size segments. Fun fact: tearing the leaves, instead of cutting them, stops them from browning. Crumble some feta and once the eggplant and sweet potato are cooked, you’re ready to plate up.

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Begin with two mountains of spinach, on separate plates and pile alternate layers of eggplant, sweet potato and the remaining spinach with the utmost care – hold your breath so the tower doesn’t collapse if you think that’ll help.

Once you have exhausted your vegetable piles, dress with the snakes of red pepper and crumbled feta, top with a teaspoon of capers, a drizzle of olive oil and a grind of pepper.

Serve with a congratulatory glass of red wine – you deserve it!

camembert complete!

It has been a long and windy road on the path to becoming an artisanal cheesemaker, and I feel like I have finally taken a step forward; my camembert has finished ripening, and it is edible!

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I cannot say that it is in an ideal condition but I think I can chalk this one up as a win for me.

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The sharp, pungent odour escaped the wheel as I delicately cut it open, although I didn’t smell it until several minutes later when I finally let out a sigh of relieve. The soft centre of I speckled yellow wheel did not ooze out onto the plate, or stick to the edge of the knife with each attempt of cutting it, nor did it crumble at the slightest touch. While I didn’t really resemble the cheese of my initial vision, I think that it actually turned out perfect for the situation I ended up eating it; it sliced thinly and held its shape to fit perfectly atop of a cracker or as the cracker with pesto or chutney spread across it.

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I love eating sharp, hard cheeses with sweet fruit chutneys, each bite of my cheese tasted like a mouthful of the Mediterranean (in a good way) which was great salty contrast to serve with preserved plums and sweet, fresh grapes.

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Mission accomplished!

 

frommage failure

It is official; I have failed. Or at least, I have half failed; one of my wheels of camembert which I had maturing at home has imploded, resulting in a gooey, yellow mess, specks of mould floating in a cloudy sea of old, un-extracted whey. I thought that I had researched, even over-researched the subject of DIY cheese making, but it turns out that I probably made some classic rookie mistakes.

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Below is a collection of tips, of weary words to head to if this is an endeavour you wish to pursue, a list that if I could turn back time I wish I could have followed.

Tip #1: Removing as much of the whey as possible.
Salting the surface in order to extract moisture may not be enough, I recently watched a documentary on cheese making in Brazil (yes, I did watch this by choice) and before salting the cheese, these farmers would place a large, smooth stone on top of each wheel while it was wrapped in the cheese cloth for at least a day in order to squeeze as much liquid out as possible. They were also far more liberal than I was with the salt; the more salt equals more dehydration – a good thing in this situation.

Tip #2: Clean clean clean.
I said in my first cheese post, that it was essential to sterilize everything that touches your cheese so that no ‘bad bacteria’ gets into your cheese. This is for obvious reasons; the wrong sort of mould can lead to your cheese rotting instead of maturing, and certain kinds of bacteria can affect your cheese’s ability to grow mould which in turn can lead to it not maturing as well as it should. What I didn’t particularly do, but should have, was keep everything sterilised all the time; in hindsight, I think it is particularly necessary to clean the inside of your fridge before you start, and regularly during the process – you never know what invisible creatures can be carried on to your cheese but the air.

Tip #3: Walk before you run.
Every website and blog post I read about amateur cheese making specified the necessity of taking it slow when deciding to tackle more complicated cheeses – slow and steady wins the race, so to speak. I, however, thought that I was exempt from this rule, that I could just jump into the hard stuff – I had made ricotta and that had been easy, so why not just try something incredibly difficult as the next step? Don’t. Work your way up to the hard stuff, the natural progression is ricotta, mozzarella, blue vein, and then camembert.

Tip #4: Mould growth.
According to curd-nerd.com, there are many reasons why a camembert might not be growing ma sufficient level of mould. Mine moulded sporadically, rather unevenly, and I was not sure why, or to phased by it. It could be that the environment is too cold, or not enough salt was used (see above), there could have been too much moisture or unwanted mould could have beaten the good bacteria (also see above). I am relatively sure that my camembert didn’t produce enough mould because of the temperature or low salt levels. I know that the moisture levels where quite high, but I am almost certain that they weren’t too high. The refrigerator I used didn’t have a particularly accurate thermometer; the settings are either ‘Mild’, ‘Cold’ or “Really cold’ – not exactly scientific measurements!

Only a little bit discouraged, I am not entirely sure on what my next step is, I still have my second wheel of camembert which is looking like it might be ok – it will be ready in about a week so fingers crossed! Maybe a blue vein, or I might even try my hand at making mozzarella, who knows?!

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olives and oven-baked feta

Since starting to make my own cheeses, I have begun experimenting with different ways to use it. Although feta goes great on toast with a drizzle of honey, I thought it was probably a better idea to push my abilities more than that, regardless of how good it might taste.

I have been pleasantly surprised with feta’s versatility; its creaminess allows for it to break down into a rich sauce, yet it is soft, spreadable and ideal for a snack of crackers or bread. It is also able to hold its form rather well when baking. And that is what I am doing with it in this recipe.

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Even though I have never been to Greece, I think that it is probably my food spirit country, a member of the long list of ancestors’ homelands, I have a hereditary love of olives and feta, don’t get me started on the correct way to make horiatiki or moussaka, and we have previously discussed how obsessed with baklava I am.

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This recipe is not a Greek dish per say, but it is inspired by Greek flavours, adapted from a recipe I found in an old cooking magazine recently. The proportions for this dish are very fluid, and my fluid I mean you can add as much as you want of anything. But here is what I used: one green and one orange bell pepper, one punnet of cherry tomatoes, one onion, about 200grams of feta (yours doesn’t have to be homemade, but mine was) and about ½ of a large jar of olives. I used Kalamata olives but any kind will work, if possible, try and avoid pitted olives because they won’t keep their shape when they cook.

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To start with, thinly slice your onion and combine it with a small dash of lemon juice and a teaspoon of sugar. Thinly slice the peppers and place them in a large roasting dish with the onion and olives, you can also add some whole, peeled garlic cloves if you so desire. Season with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil, a dash of red wine vinegar and add a bay leaf. Depending on your tastes, you can add a teaspoon each of chilli powder and fennel seeds, a dash of cinnamon and the zest of a lemon (I used dried lemon peel).

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Roast at 180°C for 25 minutes, stir is occasionally to get an even roast and cut the tomatoes in half while you wait. Break the feta into quarters, place on top of the vegetables and pour the chopped tomatoes over top, add more pepper if you think it needs it.

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Bake for another 10 minutes, the tomatoes will become tender and the cheese will soften and begin to crisp up slightly. It is best that the tomatoes do not become too tender and lose their shape, too long in the oven and this will happen to the feta too.

As a summer meal, serve the dish warm, with a loaf of crusty bread to soak up the juices. This dish has all the makings of a delicious, comforting winter meal; add lamb fillets or chops to the dish before you begin cooking.

the cheese diaries: camembert

I recently embarked on the beginning of my cheese making journey;, I started off easy by making ricotta and feta – arguably the most straightforward of cheeses to make.

They were delicious and I have since made them several times more but I thought it was high time to try something new, something a bit more difficult. SO I decided to make camembert.

Making camembert was probably biting off a bit more than I could chew, as an amateur cheesemaker I can really only guess how the process is going, I don’t have a skill level which allows me to look at a growing wheel and know what it needs – more humidity, a colder temperature, if it needs to be turned or flipped. But nevertheless I am giving it a go.

Camembert is a cheese native to Normandy, the process for making it is a tad longer than anything I have tried before… by about two months, so this is not an experiment for the fainthearted or impatient, it is about looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel and picturing the end product, the rich creamy end product.

The method of creating this cheese is similar, but slightly different to the recipe for ricotta; it is slightly more decadent. To make two medium size wheels I used full cream milk, cream and homemade buttermilk. I use a Middle Eastern recipe, so instead of combining milk and lemon juice, I use equal parts of milk and yoghurt mixed together and left overnight. I start by heating 3litres of milk to blood temperature with a pinch of turmeric.

Instead of buying the actual cheese bacteria, which can be pricey and a reason why some people are reluctant to make their own cheese, I blended 1tablespoon of store-bought camembert with ½ a cup of warm water and added it to the milk.

It is then taken off the heat and 250ml of cream and 500ml of buttermilk is added with a pinch of salt and left to rest for 30 minutes before the acid is added. For this quantity of liquid I used 30ml of rennet and 15ml of lemon juice; 45ml of acid all up. I left it to sit for another 90 minutes before transferring it into moulds.

Like most live-culture cheeses, there are four stages to making camembert; the draining, the drying, the mould development and the ripening.

The first stage; draining, takes place overnight – the moulds are left to drain any of the whey which was not removed when it as transferred to the moulds. The moulds need to be flipped after 6 hours to make sure the draining is done evenly. Yes, that does mean I got up at 2am to tend to my little cheese babies.

The next day the drying process begins, this step is just to draw that last bit of moisture out before the mould cultivation begins. Salt is rubbed on the surfaces and left for a day and a half or until it stops excreting liquid and should be flipped every few hours.

Next, the cheese is placed in a cool, humid environment where it can begin growing mould. This process is a bit longer; it takes about 14 days for the mould to be sufficient. This is the stage I am up to at the moment, I think it is going well but I am not entirely sure to be completely honest. The general signs are good, the mould is growing white which it is meant to (if the mould is black then the cheese is probably rotting, in a bad way) and it smells like cheese should.

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The final step is the maturation phase, this is about 6 weeks. So now it is just sitting and waiting, hoping that everything is going to plan and hopefully, soon, I will have some edible cheese. I will keep out updated on the outcome! I mean, if it smells like cheese, surely it will taste like cheese, right?

the cheese diaries

Hobbies are a good thing to have, we all need hobbies. I have been reading a lot lately about artisanal cheese makers and the ever-expanding market in which these cheese makers have found themselves in. So, to mark two years since I arrived in France, I decided to try my hand at home-crafted cheese. I have his romantic idea of moving to the countryside somewhere and becoming an artisanal handyman, where I would make cheese from the goats I milked, and make jams and preserves from the fruit on the trees that I prune and tend to.

Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain
Dylan and goat- Benimaurell, Spain

Obviously, with this post celebrating ‘French-ness’ I should be making a French cheese; camembert, gruyere, reblochon, etc. But these cheeses are pretty difficult to make and I don’t want to start my cheese making career off with a failure, so I think I will just work up to that.

To start off with, I decided to make ricotta. Ricotta is an Italian cheese similar to the Spanish ‘queso fresco’. The name means ‘re-cooked’, i.e. the milk is heated to a higher temperature than other cheeses. The milk being heated to a higher temperature means that ricotta is not a live culture cheese, it does not need time to develop mould over time in order to gain its flavour texture and of course, its smell. Cheeses like ricotta, feta and queso fresco can all be eaten the same day they are made. This is good news if you have a short attention span and love cheese.

nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta
nutmeg and cinnamon ricotta

Cheese production can be on as small or as large of a scale as you want it to be, for this reason instead of a recipe, I will give you somewhat of a maths equation… for every 1 litre of milk, you will need 7.5mls of rennet or other acid and 1.5 cups of boiling water.

Firstly, let’s talk rennet. Rennet is an enzyme that curls milk, it is naturally produced my calves to solidify milk particles and make them digestible. Rennet is also the reason why some vegetarians do not eat cheese- as it is an animal by-product. There is such thing as vegetarian rennet if you want to make vegetarian cheese. When I learnt to make queso fresco in Spain, we used lemon juice as the acid does a similar job. I experimented with a mixture of rennet, lemon juice and apple cider vinegar.

ALWAYS sterilise your equipment
ALWAYS sterilise your equipment

Rennet is a sure-fire way of knowing your ricotta is going to work out and the concentration is always going to be the same. Lemon juice doesn’t have this consistency as one lemon is going to vary from the next. Apple cider vinegar creates a nice tart and dry ricotta, so it is perfect to use if you want to cut the ricotta into slices. If you are more partial to crumbly cheese, then I suggest you use lemon juice.

Ricotta can be served sweet or savoury. For the sweet version, add a teaspoon of sugar to your milk, for savoury, add a teaspoon of salt. I did both versions and both are delicious, I also added a pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon to my sweet ricotta.

Place your milk in a large saucepan and warm on a very low heat; you only need it get it to about 22°C – or just below room temperature. If you have a milk thermometer you can use it, if not use your judgement after a couple of minutes. With a cheese like ricotta, the creamier the better! So use full fat milk, the highest fat content I could find was 4% so I suggest you look for something similar.

Next, take it off the heat and add your rennet or acidifier. There is no need to stir it as the curds will automatically cling to each other. Leave the milk to curdle for at least an hour.

curds and whey
curds and whey

After an hour, a large clump of curds will have formed in a sea of whey. Cut through the curds with a wooden spoon and pour over the boiling water; this will help separate the curds and the whey even further. Leave for an additional ten minutes before straining the curds through a cheese cloth and placing it in a mould to set. Discard the whey if you like, but it is very high in protein so it can be added to a smoothie for a bit of a health kick!

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Place the mould in the refrigerator for another hour to get rid of as much liquid as possible, now it is ready to eat! You could also place it is a bath of high concentrated salt water for several more hours if you want to turn it into feta (highly recommended also).

What I love about ricotta is that it is so versatile; eat it as it is, incorporate it into a salad, use as the base ingredient of a cheesecake or spread on toast with a drizzle of honey.

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My next entry into my cheese diary will be a harder cheese, I am not sure what though. My two choices are blue vein cheese or camembert, camembert will be a bit more difficult, but do you think I am up for the challenge? What do you think?