speculoos – belgian spice cookies

What I love about travelling is how easy it is to carry on dreaming about the holiday long after it has finished; flicking through an album of photos on a rainy day, recreating dishes in your own home, or getting really desperate and taking a tour through a city on street view on Google Maps.

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My first trip when I arrived in Europe was to Brussels, where I discovered the magic that is speculoos – a bronze coloured treasure that I was delighted to find, accompanied almost any cup of coffee ever served in France. They were so readily available that it never occurred to me that I was more than capable of giving them a whirl in my own kitchen.

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I am happy to announce that I have since remedied this problem.

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Speculoos, also known as Belgian Spice Cookies, are dark caramel in colour, sweet and gingery in flavour and brittle in texture. Describing them almost as a crunchy piece of gingerbread may not be the most glamourous of definitions, but it is certainly the most accurate. The perfect consistency for dunking into a cup of coffee or steaming hot chocolate, they are also decorated with the cutest little pictures.

For this recipe, you will need:

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 3 teaspoons of cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon of ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon of allspice (or you could use ground cloves)
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of baking soda
  • 1 cup of butter
  • ½ cup of white sugar
  • ¼ cup of raw sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla

I know it sounds like a bucket load of ingredients but that’s all part of the punch of flavour that comes hand in hand with these biscuits!

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Begin by sifting the flour with the spices, baking soda, baking powder and salt. In a larger bowl cream the butter with the two sugars and vanilla extract. Even though I have used raw sugar here, you can use brown sugar if you wanted; it will give it a smoother finish but I like them a little granulated for extra crunch.

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Gradually combine the dry ingredients with the creamed butter until you have dough that is soft, yet firm. As with any dough mixture; if it’s too dry, add a bit of water; and if it’s too wet, add a bit more flour. You shouldn’t have this problem because it is almost saturated with butter, keeping it smooth and silky.

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Form into a ball, wrap in Clingfilm and refrigerate from at least an hour.

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On a layer of baking parchment, roll your dough into a thin, flat rectangle. For a nice finishing touch, roll over the layer with a patterned rolling pin (aren’t these so cool?!)

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Baking at 175°C for 25 minutes, the dough will still be soft and spongey when it comes out – don’t continue baking it! It will harden as it cools down, and it’s at a perfect consistency to slice into squares with a pizza cutter (or a knife, should that be easier).

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Enjoy with a cup of coffee at break, or after lunch, or as an afternoon pick-me-up. Perfect for a bit of happiness when the weather is grey and dreary.

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sweet potato croquettes

Boys will be boys. We’ve all heard it before, usually from an emotionally exhausted parent in our youth, but some of us may have even uttered the words ourselves. I found myself in a bit of a ‘boys-will-be-boys’ situation recently; a phone call from my frazzle mother – my little brother had toppled off his skateboard as he raced down a rather speed hill, breaking his jaw in three places. Typical.

Gone are the days when doctors would wire a broken jaw closed like the monster from a B-grade horror film, but he is still restricted in what he was allowed to eat. Sympathetic of a diet of tired mashed potatoes and tomato soup, I graciously took on the task of inventing some delicious, yet soft and smooth meal ideas.

French cuisine is so much more expansive than many of us imagine, boeuf bourguignon and foie gras are not quotidian meals as any French-cooking themed film would lead us to believe. Au contraire, they are traditional – time-consuming and expensive to make, and like the variety of French wines, are very regionally specific. I have decided that I needed to increase my knowledge on the larger umbrella that is the way that French people actually cook. I have been flicking through my newly acquired copy of 100 Styles of French Cooking by Karl Wurzer, marking recipes to try in my own variation of Julie Powell’s homage to Julia Child in The Julie/Julia Project – the story behind Julie & Julia for those who have no idea what I’m talking about.

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Sweet potato is something that I grew up eating a lot of, I could never pass up a huge pile of deep-fried sweet potato fries, crisp and salty – the perfect picnic dinner while sitting on the beach. They are basically a more interesting version of a standard potato and when I stumbled upon Karl’s recipe for croquettes à l’algerienne – Algerian croquettes, I knew I had to try them out!

Like most delicious things, these crunchy globes of mustard coloured mash are best finished off in the deep fryer, but because I 1) don’t have a deep fryer and 2) am not using that much oil in one go, I decided to pan fry them and finish them off in the oven – kind of like my churros.

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Peel and dice one sweet potato per person and boil until cooked through and tender. Drain through a colander and leave so as much of the water as possible can drip through. Sauté ¼ of an onion per person in olive oil or lard – I used chicken fat from a roast the night before, it gives it a nice meaty flavour without making it seem too heavy. Mash the potato and stir the onions through once they are soft and syrupy, along with 2 tablespoons of ground almonds or cashews per person, ½ a teaspoon of cumin, ¼ a teaspoon of nutmeg, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a big grind of salt and pepper. I added a pinch of dried herbs too.

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Based on your skill and patience, there are two ways to shape the croquettes – you can either shape them into flat rugby ball shaped spheres with your hands, or into quenelles using two tablespoons. Either way, you’ll get the same result. If you are organised enough, I would recommend doing this much of the process the day before and refrigerating the quenelles so they hold their shape better. If that’s not possible then I guess that’s fine too.

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Fry your croquettes in as much oil or melted butter as you want – the more you use, the easier it will be, but as you increase the oil, you increase the un-healthiness – a lose-lose situation. I lightly fried mine on either side before baking them for a further 10 minutes to get an even crisp and to heat them the whole way through.

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I served mine with a yogurt and tahini dip and sprinkled over some more herbs, salt and pepper, just in time for my brother to tell me he couldn’t make it. More for me I guess!

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apple skin tisane

I have recently been trying to make a conscious effort lower the amount of waste coming out of our kitchen, I generally hate to throw anything away as it is but I have been thinking a bit about sustainability and ecofriendly-ness and I found an awesome way of using the apple peel left over from my tart; apple skin tea.

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I know that the name doesn’t make it sound like the greatest thing, but it was actually really good, and so easy to make! Essentially it is equal parts apple skin and water, then flavoured with anything you like; a vanilla pod, a cinnamon stick, you could even add dried citrus zest for a sweet, fruitier flavour.

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Just add the ingredients into a pot, bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes before draining the apple skins out. You will be left with a soft pink liquid which you can drink hot as a tisane tea, cold as a juice or even reduce it down to use as a cocktail flavouring. Or you could do as the French do and add it to a coup de champagne and make an apple kir royal.

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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!

saucy orange – orange sauce

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to become a bit more organised with my daily food preparation, I think it is so important, and yet so difficult to find the time to properly prepare an evening meal every day so I am trying to get into the habit of taking a Sunday afternoon and adding a bit of productivity into my live by preparing a bunch of meals which I can then freeze or refrigerate for the coming week. A little bit of organisation, probably a little bit of a fad… Anyway, here is a delicious orange sauce that works perfectly for this.

This recipe for orange paste is ideal to make while pottering around the kitchen as it essentially just involves leaving a pot of the stove to simmer.

Firstly, cut an orange into thin slices- flesh, skin, pith and all (well, not the pips). Line a small saucepan with the orange wedges, add a dash of vinegar- I used apple cider vinegar as I like the tart apple flavour it brings, 50grams of honey or sugar and half a teaspoon of saffron. If you don’t have saffron (which I didn’t), substitute it for a combination of cinnamon and turmeric. The cinnamon will give it a slightly similar flavour and the saffron’s colour is replicated by the turmeric. Cover with just enough water, bring to the boil and simmer for about an hour while you potter about. You will be left with beautifully soft orange segments and a thick orange syrup.

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Leave it to cool slightly before blending the mixture into a thick, pulpy paste. You can store the paste in a jar in the fridge for up to a week and can be used as a salad dressing or a sauce with grilled chicken. I thinly sliced some chicken breast and marinated them with the paste. As part of my organisational plan, I froze the chicken to be defrosted during the week. This is a great idea to get really tender meat as it absorbs the flavours and juices while it is freezing and continues to do so while it is defrosting. You can then either pan-fry it and add to a salad or use as the base of an orange pasta sauce- a great summer idea and a nice comfort food for those colder nights.

forgotten things

It has been a number of weeks since I last updated this blog. Life has been a bit hectic; I found a new apartment to move into and then at the last minute they decided to give it to someone else, so I was a little in limbo for a while and not becoming homeless was my main priority.

But all is well now, I have moved into a new place with a lovely view of the river and a nice, big kitchen.

So, in theme of things being lost and forgotten I thought I would make this classic French breakfast; French Toast. You may ask what the connection between French Toast and lost-ness is. Well, let me explain. Ironically, if you talk to any French person about French Toast, they will have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s because in France French Toast is not called French Toast, it’s not even just called toast. It’s called pain perdu, which translates to lost or wasted bread.

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While elsewhere in the world we would generally just use a regular loaf of bread to make this dish, in France it is made with baguette- more specifically, baguettes left over from the day (or two) before. So for this recipe you will need a baguette that is at least a day old, two is better. The point of using old bread is that it is not as soft as when freshly baked so it absorbs the eggy milk mixture without going soggy and collapsing.

Because I was cooking just for myself I used half a baguette. Firstly, cut the baguette into thick slices, then in a bowl mix one egg and half a cup of milk for each half of baguette you’re using. I added a teaspoon of cinnamon and a teaspoon as hot chocolate powder, this is completely optional but gives it a nice flavour.

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Whisk this all together and then add the chunks of bread, flipping them after about 30 seconds so they absorb the mixture evenly throughout.

Melt a knob of butter in a pan and add the pieces of bread. Spoon the remaining mixture that was not absorbed over top of each piece for good measure. After a few minutes the  pan will really start to sizzle, check the underside of the bread to see how cooked it is, when it is a nice golden brown or cooked to whatever degree you like flip it over and repeat on the other side.

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Remove from the pan and leave to cool for a moment, sprinkle with sugar or icing sugar and drizzle with a bit of honey or agave nectar (what I used). Usually I would eat this meal with bacon but it is extremely difficult to find proper rashers of bacon in France; it basically only comes in the form of lardons. And besides, the idea of eating something so salty as bacon as a breakfast food would make any French person’s stomach turn.

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Serve hot with a cup (or two) of fresh coffee and a newspaper- the perfect Sunday brunch!

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life explained through pancakes

Some friends of mine came over from England last week and they spent a couple of days staying with me. I woke up one morning to find that they had gone out to buy breakfast. They had all the essentials; croissants, nutella, eggs and milk. However, the milk they had bought was not actually milk, it looked like a milk bottle and it did say LAIT on it but it was in fact ‘lait fermenté’; fermented milk which also called acidified milk and very similar to buttermilk. It has the consistency of cream, the taste of unsweetened yoghurt and does not go nicely in a cup of tea.

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So, that was a bit of a fail, but seeing as the bottle was not in English, or even really in French and we don’t speak Arabic, they were forgiven. Not wanting to waste it, I got a-searching on marmiton.com for some way of using it; the easiest thing being pancakes.

480 mls of buttermilk or fermented milk combined with 2 eggs, 250 grams of flour, a teaspoon of baking soda, 60 grams of sugar, a pinch of salt and a large teaspoon of melted butter should do the trick! Mix the wet ingredients together.

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I added a bit of cinnamon too.

Slowly add the dry ingredients, sift them to add fluffiness and combine until you have a mix unlumpy batter. Now take a moment to clean the kitchen slightly because it will probably be a mess.

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This all seems pretty simple, but during the time I was making this I came up with a  few tips to perfect the whole thing, and most of it can really be applied to life in general.

Here is what I learnt:

– Life is full of disappointments: This is probably something that a lot of people apply to a lot of situations, I am applying it to pancake batter. This recipe said that it would serve four, it did not. It probably created half a meal for three of us, so double or triple it, unless you are mice. It would probably be four servings for mice.

– Be prepared: Ingredients are important, having the right ingredients is also important so make sure you have the right ingredients before you begin. Because they are all relatively essential.

– Improvise when appropriate: If you were not prepared, don’t fret! adjust the recipe for what you have; sometimes you don’t have eggs, half a mashed banana will do almost the same job and will give it a nice flavour. And feel free to add flavours as you like; cinnamon, vanilla, rum, cocoa etc…

– Stay calm!: If it is all going wrong as you’re trying to flip them, if you can’t help but smoosh them up a little, don’t stress out or it will just go more wrong. Stay calm and cool, and that applies to the pan too, don’t make it too hot.

– Good things come to those who wait: Yes, I know, probably a little overused but it’s true. Having to cook one pancake at a time means that you’re going to be there for a while but don’t try and rush it. If you think that it’s time to flip it, it probably isn’t. wait until the bubbles on top have burst and then some. A little crispy on the outside is a lot better than raw on the inside.

Size DOES matter: A big frying pan on a small element is going to be a disaster, so use a big element, or a small pan. Actually a small pan is going to make the pancakes smaller and easier to flip, so maybe that’s better… The debate continues…

– Always own a good spatula: If your spatula is anything like mine you will want to punch yourself in the face. And that is a feeling you should always try and avoid.

After all this stress, you will hopefully be left with a nice batch of yummy goodness.

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There was one other thing that I learnt in this experiment: I flippin’ hate making pancakes. So find someone who likes to make them, and is good at it, and keep them!