Paella with friends

You might have guessed from the title – I’ve been enjoying the annual visit of friends who have a house in Saint-Chinian.  We had some wonderful meals and days out, and together we have cooked and eaten a lot of delicious food!! 🙂 I don’t know how, but I did manage not to gain a huge amount of weight in the process – perhaps it was the hot weather!?

My friends enjoy food as much as I do, and one day we decided to try and cook paella.  There is a stall in Saint-Chinian market which sells perfectly good paella, but we had a sneaking suspicion that a home-cooked paella could be at least as good if not better

On my cookery book shelf I have a book called Catalan Cuisine (Europe’s Last Great Culinary Secret) by Colman Andrews.  The author gives a number of recipes for Valencian paella, which is not strictly speaking a Catalan dish, but one which has been enthusiastically adopted by the people of Catalunya.  We decided to try the straightforward Valencian Paella, for which rabbit and chicken are used – no seafood here!  You can read an article by Colman Andrews about paella here – he also gives a recipe for a vegetable paella as part of the article.

Our ingredients were 250g rabbit, cut into pieces by the butcher, and 750g chicken, also cut into pieces by the same butcher.  I love my butcher in Saint-Chinian!  I sometimes wonder what I’ll do when he retires!  We also used some chorizo, which was not listed in the recipe, but we felt like it.

Some of the ingredients used for our paella

Some of the ingredients used for our paella

The recipe also called for one chopped onion, three tomatoes, olive oil, 500g of assorted beans (we used broad beans, French beans and a type of flat bean), a sprig of rosemary and 500g of short grain rice.  We also made up 1.2 litres of chicken stock.

More ingredients for our paella

More ingredients for our paella

If you have read Colman Andrews’ article, you’ll know how important it is to use the right kind of rice for your paella.  Long grain rice just won’t do – you’ll have to find the right kind of short grain rice, or use risotto rice.  Where I live I I can find paella rice in almost every supermarket and grocery store – lucky me! 🙂

Paella seems to take its name from the dish in which it is cooked, although in Spain, outside of Catalan territory, the pan is called a paellera, and in Valencia the pan is called a caldero.  I’m sure there are reasons for that!! 🙂  The pan is almost as important as the rice – it has to be wide and shallow, to allow the rice to cook through evenly.

Paella pan

Paella pan ready for action

We started off the cooking by browning the rabbit and the chicken pieces in some olive oil.

Browning the meats

Browning the meats

After the meat was nicely browned and had been removed from the pan, the chopped onion was added and cooked in the remaining fat until golden .

Cooking the onions

Cooking the onions

The tomatoes, which had been peeled, seeded and chopped, were added to the onions and cooked until they had softened.

Tomatoes and onions cooking together

Tomatoes and onions cooking together

Meantime the beans and chorizo had been prepared.

ingredients all prepared

Ready for action!

The beans went in first:

beans added to the paella pan

Beans ahoy!

Then came the chorizo:

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All topped up with the chicken stock:

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Ooops!

It was at that point that we realised we might be in a bit of trouble! 🙂  The pan might not be quite large enough to hold all our ingredients!!  The rice was next:

Adding the rice

Adding the rice

Once it was all in, the pan looked extremely full:

Almost there!

Almost there!

The meat and rosemary were tucked in, and the pan brought gently to the boil.  Somehow we managed it without making an unholy mess all over the cooker!  If you are going to try this at home, be sure to use gentle heat to avoid burning the rice.  Once it had cooked for about 10 minutes. we covered the pan with aluminium foil and turned the heat to its lowest setting.  Then we had a well-earned glass of wine while we waited!!

Waiting....

Waiting….

The wait was difficult, the smells ever so tempting.  When the cover finally came off, after about 35 minutes, the paella looked like this:

The finished paella

The finished paella

The rice was perfectly cooked and the flavour was divine.  The recipe notes stated the quantity to be enough for 6-8 as an appetizer and 4-6 as a main course.  There were six of us, and despite our best efforts there were plenty of (delicious) leftovers!

It was a truly wonderful dish, and one which I’ll be making again!!

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Buonissimo – Italian food

The theme for our most recent “cooking with friends” get-together was Italian food and our hosts were the owners of La Petite Pepiniere in Caunes Minervois.

For our menu the following had been decided:

The recipe for the pimientos came from Italian Food by Elizabeth David.  As with many of her recipes the instructions leave some room for interpretation. 🙂  The peppers are grilled and peeled, and left to marinate in olive oil with a very little lemon juice.  After they have marinated for about half an hour they are cut into strips lengthwise.  On each strip is put a chopped anchovy fillet and some chopped capers.  Each pepper strip is then rolled up to form a sausage shape.

When the peppers were all done that way, they were arranged on a platter and garnished with some chopped parsley.

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The next course was a very refreshing salad made with fennel, cucumber and radishes, all thinly sliced and dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and a little salt and pepper.

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No self-respecting Italian meal would be complete without its pasta course.  Our pasta course consisted of mushroom ravioli, with a white wine and tarragon cream sauce.  Below are the ingredients we used (note, we didn’t use the chicken breast specified in the recipe):

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First the pasta dough was made, as that needed to rest for a good half hour before being rolled out.  While the dough was resting, the filling was cooked:  the onions were finely chopped (in the food processor) and slowly cooked with some olive oil, garlic and thyme.  The finely chopped mushrooms (again done in the food processor) were added, and the whole cooked until the mushrooms were tender and had “dried out” somewhat.

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Next came the fun part – rolling out the pasta dough!!  With he help of a pasta machine it was easy and great fun!  We ended up with three long strips.

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We deviated from the recipe in that we put the filling all down one side of each sheet and then folded it over to make our ravioli – doing it that way worked very well for us!

Here are the finished ravioli, before being cooked:

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The spinach was supposed to be cooked separately and the ravioli served arranged on top of it, but we decided to give the spinach a miss.  The sauce was simple to prepare:  onions and shallots were cooked over gentle heat until golden, white wine was added and cooked a few minutes to allow the alcohol to evaporate, then the cream and tarragon were added and heated through.  Very delicious!!

For our main course our hosts had choosen Osso Bucco Milanese – stewed shin of veal.  Since this is a dish which requires long and slow simmering, it was already cooking when we arrived.  The recipe again came from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food.

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To round off this meal, we baked an Italian almond cheesecake:

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It was one of the first dishes we prepared that afternoon, as it required a fair amount of cooking and cooling time.  Here’s what it looked like fresh from the oven:

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Once all our dishes were pretty much finished we had a little break.  I took the opportunity to wander about the beautiful show garden at La Petite Pepiniere, and took a few pictures for you.  The flowers are all different varieties of cistus, a native plant to the Languedoc region.

Soon it was time to sit down to our feast:

Pimientos stuffed with anchovies and capers

Pimientos stuffed with anchovies and capers

Fennel, cucumber and radish salad

Fennel, cucumber and radish salad

Mushroom ravioli with a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce

Mushroom ravioli with a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce

Osso bucco milanese, served with plain risotto

Osso bucco milanese, served with plain risotto

Italian almond cheesecake

Italian almond cheesecake

And what a feast it was!!  A big thank you to our hosts for choosing such wonderful dishes!

 

The Apicius Way

Recently, it was my turn to host our cookery group.   We had already set the theme for “my” date before Christmas, and now it was time to see what we could do with it.  The idea was to try and cook food which the ancient Romans would have eaten.

2000 years ago cookery books did not proliferate in the way they do today.  BUT a collection of recipes from ancient Rome has somehow survived, and this collection is commonly known as Apicius.  Here  is what Wikipedia has to say: “Apicius is a collection of Roman cookery recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD and written in a language that is in many ways closer to Vulgar than to Classical Latin.  The name “Apicius” had long been associated with excessively refined love of food, from the habits of an early bearer of the name, Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet and lover of refined luxury who lived sometime in the 1st century AD, during the reign of Tiberius. He is sometimes erroneously asserted to be the author of the book that is pseudepigraphically attributed to him.”  You can read the rest of the article  here.

I wonder if the French word gaver (to stuff, force feed) has anything to do with Gavius??  It sounds as though he was rather fond of filling his belly! 🙂

Searching the net, a great many references to the Apicius texts can be found.  I drew my recipes from two sources: http://www.3owls.org/sca/cook/roman.htm and http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/233472.html.  There is also a very interesting site at  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Apicius/home.html for those of you who would like to take it further!

For our afternoon of cooking I had chosen the following dishes:

Soft boiled eggs in pine nut sauce
Roast tuna
Fried veal escalopes with raisins
Parsnips with coriander
Stuffed dates
Nut tart

You can find the recipes here.  As I was preparing my shopping list, I realised that the ancient Romans must have been rather fond of pine nuts :)!!

The first dish to be prepared was the nut tart, as it needed some time in the oven, and then more time to cool!  I bought almonds and pine nuts for this dish and we used vin santo, an Italian dessert wine, as the sweet wine.

The sauce for the soft-boiled eggs called for an incredible amount of pepper!  Tasting the sauce before it was cooked made several of us choke, but the flavour mellowed with cooking.

The parsnips recipe required a fair amount of peeling, chopping and preparing, but relatively little cooking.

For both the veal escalope and the tuna recipes, the important part was the sauce or dressing, which was poured on after cooking the meat and fish.  The tuna fish was cooked on a red-hot griddle for 30 seconds each side, and turned out perfectly pink, tender and juicy.  The veal escalopes were also cooked very briefly in a hot frying pan.

The stuffed dates required two kinds of nuts – pine nuts and walnuts.

And here is what we ate:

Soft-boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

Soft boiled eggs with pine nut sauce

 

The soft-boiled eggs were delicious.  The sauce was more like a paste, and it did taste very nice, and not as peppery as we had feared earlier.  The quantities given for the sauce can be halved, or the number of eggs doubled.

Roast Tuna

Roast Tuna

 

The sauce with the tuna was much like a Mexican salsa, and went perfectly with the fish.  Definitely a recipe I would do again!

The next course was the Veal escalope with raisins.  I prepared that, and I guess in my excitement I forgot to take a picture, mea culpa!!  I’m not sure if it is because of the lack of photographic evidence to refresh my memory, but somehow this dish is not as memorable as some of the others.  The parsnips were very tasty and eaten with the veal escalopes…

Nut tart

Nut tart

Next came the nut tart – it turned out to be a fairly dense confection, not overly sweet, but very nutty!  I would reduce the quantity of nuts if I were to cook this again.  The recipe hinted at its being a kind of flan, and it wasn’t really very flan like.  Nobody disliked it though, nor did any of us leave anything on our plates, so it must have been pretty tasty!

The stuffed dates came at the very end of our meal, when we all felt rather full.  But we managed to try them all the same, and they were very delicious!

Stuffed dates

Stuffed dates

 

What an interesting afternoon we had, and what tasty food!!  I am sure that we’ll be doing some more historic recipes before too long. 🙂

 

 

Operation mincemeat

It’s this time of year, when I start to look forward to Christmas.  I try to keep Christmas firmly out of my mind until December has started, and I’m glad that the French have not yet fallen into the trap of starting to set out their Christmas merchandise as soon as August is over, or putting their Christmas decorations up at the beginning of November.  I know there are villages around here that never take down their Christmas lights, but at least they don’t turn them on until the appropriate moment.  I’m sure you can tell how I feel about timing in relation to Christmas, so I’ll stop the rant now!!  🙂

For me Christmas isn’t Christmas without some mince pies.  I was fortunate to be given a recipe for mincemeat by my dear friend Nadine Holm.  She has been using it for her mincemeat for a very long time, and I believe it’s a fairly old recipe.  Why?  Because for this recipe you actually add meat!  Wikipedia has a fascinating article on mincemeat here.  I was very interested to read that the mince in mincemeat and mince pie comes from the Latin minutia, which means smallness.  When we mince something we usually make it small, as in chopping, so that makes perfect sense.

Anyhow, I digress.  A few months ago I decided to try Nadine’s recipe, and I enlisted the help of a friend to prepare it with me, and to share the resulting mincemeat.  Preparing the mincemeat months before Christmas means that the flavours have time to develop (much as for fruitcake and Christmas pudding) and that it will be much tastier.  It also means that you have one less thing to think about in the run up to Christmas!!  Here is the recipe (you’ll find a scanned copy of the recipe at the end of this post):

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I assembled the various ingredients – not all that easy, as ready prepared suet is unknown in France, and brown sugar is fairly difficult to find.  But where there is a will…

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Weighing out the sugar, raisins, suet and citrus peel was the easiest part.  I prefer to use brown sugar for all the recipes which contain lots of dried fruit, such as Christmas puddings, fruit cake and the mincemeat.  I managed to get the suet from a supermarket that stocks British products, but I have in the past prepared it myself, buying beef fat from the butcher and grating it – somewhat laborious to say the least!  The cooked meat was put through the meat grinder, and the apples were peeled, cored and chopped finely.  I ground the spices by hand, the aroma was wonderful!

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Soon we had everything mixed and in the largest pot I have in my house – as you can see it was a tight fit!! IMG_9384

The smell when the pan came to a boil was beautiful – and very reminiscent of Christmas!  As it simmered, the quantity in the pan reduced, and the texture changed from very liquid to a more jam-like consistency. I know the colour isn’t very appetising, partly due to the yellow cast from the lighting – I’m sorry!!

Soon it was time to put the mincemeat into jars.  It looks pretty good, doesn’t it?

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Oops, that one got filled a little too much 😮

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And then we were done, and all the jars were stored on the shelf until we’re ready to make those delicious mince pies!  Roll on Christmas!!

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Nadine Holm's mincemeat recipe

Bring it on – a collection of recent cook club food

It’s been a few months since I last shared the exploits of our cookery group with you.  So it’s time to catch you up on what we’ve been cooking AND eating! 🙂  A note before I start – I don’t have the recipes for all of the dishes we cooked.  Where possible I have included the links to the relevant recipes.

Early in the summer, my friend in Narbonne hosted our get together with an Italian theme.  It was prime peach season, so we started our session with Bellini cocktails – peach juice and sparkling wine – way to go!!

For the starter we cooked stuffed round courgettes, which were accompanied by home-made foccacia bread.

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Our main course was vitello tonnato, thinly sliced cold veal (poached the day before), covered with a tuna fish mayonnaise sauce, and decorated with anchovy fillets.  With the vitello tonnato we had a beautifully crunchy salad of green beans and radishes.

For dessert we prepared peach amaretto mess – a take on Eaton mess.  For those of you not familiar with this dessert, it is generally made with whopped cream, meringues and crushed strawberries. You can see how decadent it looked, and it tasted very, very good!

A month later I hosted a Mexican themed session – I adore Mexican food, and perhaps I got a little carried away in my menu planning.  We had a lot to cook and eat!!  Here are the Mojitos we started with:

Some years ago visitors from Texas brought me a cast-iron tortilla press (THANK YOU, Susan and Alan!!), and I decided we could make use of that, to make our own corn tortillas.  For the first course we prepared Ham and chesese quesadillas with mango salsa:

This was followed by a Ceviche of scallops with avocado:

 

Our main course was Meat in tasty broth in the fashion of Guadalajara.  It really was very tasty, and a meal in itself, accompanied by beans and grilled spring onions.

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4a

We also had a Spinach salad with amaranth seeds with our main course!  We were starting to feel rather full at this point!!  So full in fact, that we decided to forego the dessert we had prepared (bunuelos, a kind of doughnut, served with an anise flavoured syrup), and the Mexican hot chocolate!!  🙂  We had a great time with all that lovely food though!

An afternoon of Caribbean food was hosted by my friends in Caunes-Minervois. I was put in charge of preparing the Simple Coconut and bean soup.  It was pretty simple and incredibly delicious!!

Jerk chicken kebabs with mango salsa were our main course, but we all agreed that the jerk seasoning mixture was too spicy and lacking depth of flavour.

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With the chicken kebabs we had exotic avocado salad, made prettier with the addition of pomegranate seeds. 🙂

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Our dessert that day was spiced glazed pineapple with cinnamon fromage frais – quite a mouthful, that recipe name, but a delicious ending to a wonderful meal!

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Our most recent get-together was held in La Caunette, and it had a vegetarian theme.  I have to admit that I was too distracted with the cooking, to be able to take many photographs.  The recipes we used were all taken from Simon Hope’s book “Entertaining with Friends”.

Our first course was a delicious salad topped with a goat’s cheese crouton:

The grilled tomatoes were for a sauce to accompany the corn fritters, which got eaten so quickly that I did not get a chance to take a picture 😦

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The parsnip croquettes were delicious too!

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I was in charge of making the wild mushroom filo parcels – a delicious, if somewhat involved recipe.

I managed to slightly overcook the filo parcels – they were nicely crisp, but a little too brown to be photogenic!! 🙂  No, they weren’t burnt to cinders, how could you??

For dessert we had kiwi compote, which I enjoyed more than my fellow cooks did.

So here you have it, four very different cookery sessions, with very different foods.  What all the sessions have in common though, is that they were all highly enjoyable and that we would probably not have tried to cook the food we prepared on our own.  If you enjoy cooking and food, why not start your own cookery group with some of your friends??  You’ll have fun, I promise!!

 

Food and wine

A friend recently told me of a cookery programme she had watched on UK television.  She was intrigued by a recipe for a flan made with Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois wine, and she was very keen to try it out.

We made a date for us to cook this together, and I watched the video, to see what it was all about.  The recipe comes from Hairy Bikers’ Bakeation (pronounced like vacation?), and was first shown on Television on April 24, 2014.  The show featured recipes for an apricot tarte tatin, brioche sausage rolls, praline brioche, and the flan de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois.  Out of those recipes, I will definitely try the apricot tarte tatin, next year when apricots are in season again.  I will include the video of the flan at the end of this post, and I’ll get to our flan experiment in a moment, but first a little about the Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois wine.

As its name implies, the wine is made from muscat grapes.  The Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois is produced in a small area around the little village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, which is located 12 km south-west of Saint Chinian.  The vineyards are on a limestone plateau at an altitude of 220 to 270 metres.  The grapes used in the production are a variety called petit grain, and indeed the individual grapes are very small.  As you approach the village, you’ll notice the vineyards where the plants seem to rise from a white soil.  The white colour comes from limestone rocks, bleached by the sun.  It is one of the many aspects of the “terroir” for this wine.

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Harvest of the muscat grapes usually takes place during the first half of September, and I was very lucky to catch some of it.  The vineyards above had already been harvested, so there were no grapes left.  But just past the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean I spotted a tractor and several people in a vineyard.

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All of the picking of the muscat grapes is done by hand.  I imagine that the grapes are too delicate and small to be picked by machine, although an engineer could probably find a solution if that is the problem.  Still, I like the fact that it is all hand-picked!

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The view of the trailer full of grapes was delicious, and the smell….  I leave you to imagine that :)!  The grapes were perfection, with tiny little spots of brown, typical for this grape variety.

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The lady in charge of the vineyard insisted that I take some grapes with me.  She fetched some secateurs, and proceeded to look for some choice bunches of grapes.  The very small, shrivelled up grapes were the ones I enjoyed best.  They tasted like sun-dried raisins, only better!

Next I went to the cooperative winery, where I quizzed the lady behind the counter.  The Cave Cooperative produces three different kinds of muscat wine. The Cuvee Petit Grain is the entry level muscat, with a nose of ripe fruit (apricot jam) and lime flowers, and a honey like finish. This wine is good with grilled chestnuts, blue cheese and apple tart.

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Next up is the Cuvee Selection, blended from the best batches of muscat of any one year.  The colour of this wine is somewhat paler than that of the Cuvee Petit Grain, and it has a strong nose of fresh fruit (mango and litchi) and thyme flowers, with an aftertaste reminiscent of fresh figs.  Just so you don’t think I’m making this up, the information comes from the official tasting notes :)!  This wine goes well with foie gras, melon, strawberry soup, and braised turnips from Pardailhan.

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The top-notch muscat is called Eclat Blanc, and of the three is the one I like best.  It has an incredibly pale colour, and a nose of lime flower, acacia, citronella and clementine.  There is a wonderful balance of sweet and acid, and it has great freshness and finesse.  Apparently you can drink this wine with your whole meal.  I don’t think I would though, as at 15% alcohol it is rather strong.

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The reason the muscat wines are so strong lies in their vinification.  The fermentation of the wines is stopped at a certain point by adding alcohol, which preserves some of the sugar present in the grape juice.  If the grapes are harvested a little earlier, and the wine is left to ferment naturally, you end up with a Muscat Sec, a dry muscat wine, which has the wonderful floral notes on the nose, but none of the sweetness when you drink it.  The cooperative winery produces a number of other wines apart from muscat, including a sparkling wine made with muscat sec, and red and rose wines.  The picture on the left shows a selection of bottles of muscat from the winery through the years, and the display in the picture on the right shows all wines currently for sale.

By now you’re probably wondering if we will ever get to the flan!  Yes, we will – we’re starting right now!!  The ingredients are simple:  milk, eggs, sugar, muscat, lavender honey, and orange zest.

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The muscat we used came from Domaine Sacre Coeur in Assignan – there are a number of independent producers of Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois, in addition to the cooperative winery.  None of the preparation of the flan is very complicated.  You will find the entire recipe here.  Having watched the video and read the recipe, I’m relieved to see that they do not specify a non-stick pan for making the caramel in the recipe.  To my mind using a non-stick pan when cooking sugar is a total no-no – the temperature rises far too high, potentially damaging the non-stick finish, and releasing who-knows-what in the process.

First of all we made the caramel – in a heavy stainless steel pan.  The trick with caramel is to keep your nerves: it has to be a good colour, since it won’t get any darker during the cooking process which follows.  At the same time, it will continue to cook somewhat, once you have poured it into the tin, so you have to catch it at the right moment.  Here’s what mine looked like:

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Immediately after I took the picture I poured the caramel into the waiting brioche tin, and swirled it around.  The tin did get quite hot, so oven gloves or a cloth to hold the tin with are a very good idea.  And don’t get any caramel on your hands!

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At the same time as the sugar was cooking, we heated the milk and infused it with the orange zest and the lavender honey:

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And when the caramel was cooling in the tin and the milk sufficiently infused, we cracked the eggs into a bowl, beat them well with the muscat wine, strained the infused (and slightly cooled) milk onto the beaten eggs, and then poured all of it into the prepared brioche tin.

The tin was placed inside a cast iron casserole, and boiling water poured in to a height of two thirds up the side of the flan tin.  The flan required five minutes more cooking time than the recipe indicated, and it was covered with tinfoil part way through the cooking.

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A couple of days later I had dinner with my friends, and we had the flan for dessert.  Un-moulding it was a little nerve-wracking – would it come out OK and in one piece??

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The caramel showing around the tin is a good sign – it means that the flan has released.

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But will it be all in one piece and looking pretty??  Find out:

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Yes!!!  We did it 🙂  And I think it looks even prettier than the flan on the TV show, but then I am biased!!  The texture was lovely and silky, the taste was good, but I could not taste the muscat, and I felt that it could have been a little sweeter.  All in all it is a great dessert, and very easy to prepare once you have mastered the caramel.

I took a piece of flan home with me, since there was too much for the three of us to eat at one meal.  I ate it a couple of days later, and felt that the flavour had improved.  If you are tempted to make this, do plan ahead and leave it to sit in the fridge for a few days, I would say up to four days is good.  I will certainly make it again!

And here is the video (e-mail subscribers, please visit the blog site to watch the video):