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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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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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?

we are the world: an international apple tart

Last week we had a work lunch where we were told to bring something that represented our heritage. Now, this was a little bit of a loaded question for me as my family have lived in New Zealand since the 1860’s so we are by all means very Kiwi, yet our actual heritage from before that time is from all over the place; Scotland, Norway, Italy and Greece, apparently the Near East a little bit too. This is a lot to try and fit into one dish but I have tried to combine as many element as possible in my apple, cheddar and rosemary tart.

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apple, cheddar and rosemary tart

This recipe calls for:
1 onion or leek
2 sprigs of rosemary
3 apples; peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or Calvados
½ a packet of filo pastry
1/3 cup of crème fraiche
200 grams of vintage cheddar
1 tablespoon of tahini
1 teaspoon of cinnamon

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As you can see, I have a French influence in the leeks and apples, English with the cheddar, a bit of the Near East with the tahini, and a Greek touch with the filo pastry. You can use whatever pastry you like; I used filo because I had some left over from the last time I made baklava. Ideally, green apples are the best for this, but I don’t really like them and had regular royal gala apples on hand and they worked well too.

Firstly, sauté the onion (in butter, as opposed to olive oil for a sweeter flavour). Once they are soft and translucent, set them aside to cool. Mix in the sliced apples, vinegar and rosemary leaves, add a dash of salt and pepper if you feel the need.

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Next whip the crème fraiche, tahini and cinnamon together. The tahini and cinnamon give the crème fraiche a nice complexity of sweet, savoury, nutty and subtly spicy, but they can be omitted if you like.

Layer the pastry into a dish, brushing each layer with a little melted butter as you do so. Spread the crème fraiche mixture over it, top with 2/3 of the grated cheese before adding the apples and the remaining cheese.

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Bake at 200°C for 30 minutes and leave to cool before removing from the dish and slicing.

It is safe to say that this dish went down a treat, maybe the story behind it was a little over everyone’s heads but it definitely was delicious. It is great served hot with a side of salad, and also makes a great hamper-filler, eaten cold at a picnic. Bon appetite!

say cheese!

As I was lying on the beach today in 31°C weather, under the cloudless blue sky, eating strawberry vanilla ice cream (Yes, this really is how my life works at the moment. I know, I am the epitome of glamour, the definition even. Check the dictionary, I’m there), I realised that it had been far too long since I had updated this.
So I made a mental note to fix this issue. I also begun to think about everyone that I left behind at home, and how they are probably all freezing right now as winter begins to creep in. As I chuckled at my good fortune of avoiding winter/laughed at their misfortune of being stuck in it, I knew what the perfect thing to make the cold weather seem not so terrible; Raclette!

Raclette is wonderful, it is a type of cheese which originates from Switzerland or the part of France on the Swiss border. It is also a dish made with said cheese that belongs to the same family as fondue, the machine that you use to make said dish with said cheese, and the party you throw in which you use said machine to make said dish with said cheese. Following?

machine editedA couple of weeks ago I went to stay with my friend who lives in Montpellier, most probably the cutest little city I have seen and maybe ever will. It’s about two hours from Marseille so I hopped in a car with a bunch of strangers (which is a lot less dangerous than it sounds since its all sorted through a legit website) and off I went!

Now, Raclette is meant to be a winter food, but I had never tried it and everyone decided that it was something I needed to experience right away. So, after a wonderful day of sightseeing I sat down for a life changing meal.montpellier collage

 Another great thing about Raclette is that it is so easy to make, providing you have a Raclette machine… Although we can easily get around that..

Step one: Boil some potatoes. Leave the skin on until after they have cooked so that they keep their shape. Do as many as you want, depending on how many people you are feeding and how hungry everyone is.

Step two that probably should actually go ahead of step one: Assembling your ingredients. This is probably the most time consuming part of the whole process. Slice and arrange whatever you want to eat with your melted cheese. Traditionally the cheese and potatoes are eaten with charcuterie; cured meats. We used ham, a couple of kinds of salami, a kind of blood sausage and some prosciutto but we also included pickled onions and gherkins to trick us into thinking we were being slightly healthy.  Oh, and bread, of course.SAM_0622

Step three: Melt your cheese. With the Raclette machine, the cheese sits in mini frying pans underneath the element. I am slightly stuck for ways you could do with without the machine but I guess that melting it in a normal frying pan could work, maybe, as long as it doesn’t stick to the pan and just make a terrible mess.

Anyway, while your cheese is melting put whatever meat you want to eat with it on the element (which I suppose could also be substituted for another frying pan). The element doesn’t need to be oiled or greased because the meat is so fatty anyway, so just slap it on there. Yum! While the meat is toasting and the cheese is melting, peel a potato and cut it into chucks in a bowl or on a plate and wait. When the meat is crispy, or just warm if that’s how you want it, take it off the element carefully and cut it up on top of the potato. Now cover it with the melted cheese and voilà!

Continue this until you’re full, the potatoes and cheese run out or until you pass out into a food coma.

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It is meals like this that make me dread the cold European winter a little less… just a little.