Apricot Bonanza

With the apricot season starting, I thought I wouldΒ remind you of a few ways these wonderful fruits can be enjoyed. I originally wrote this article back in 2015, and I still make the dishes I wrote about then. There are no apricots on my friends’ trees this year (the frost nipped at it during blossom time), but luckily there are plenty of apricots to be found in the twice weekly market in Saint-Chinian!


This year I was lucky enough to have the pick of the crop from a tree belonging to friends – they were away while their tree was full of ripe fruit!!

When I started to think about what to do with this bounty, the first thing which came to mind was apricot jam –  beautifully orange coloured, and full of the flavours of the sun!!

Whenever I make jam these days, I try to use the kind of jam sugar where you can use 500g of sugar for 1kg of fruit, which makes for a much fruitier jam.

For this apricot jam I cut the apricots in half to remove the stones, and then cut each half again into four pieces.

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Once all the apricots were cut, I mixed them with the sugar, and put them in the refrigerator to stand overnight.

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Whilst the apricots are standing, the sugar draws out the juice, and the fruit tends to hold its shape better during cooking, rather than simply turning into mush.  This time I also cracked some of the apricot stones open, and added the ‘almonds’ to the mixture, hoping they would impart some of their lovely almond flavour to the jam.  Apricot ‘almonds’ do concern small amounts of cyanide, so if you are at all concerned about this, please leave them out.

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The following morning the mixture looked like this:

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The sugar had done its work, drawing out lots of juice from the apricots.  Boiling time is only four minutes, so that the vitamins won’t get boiled to death altogether!  The sugar which I use contains the right amount of pectin, so that the jam will always set.  In France it is available under the name of Fruttina Extra, and you’ll be able to find the international websites for the company here.

Et voila!!  Apricot jam always seems to froth quite a lot, so use a large pan and keep stirring!  I potted my jam the moment the boiling time was over, in twist-off jars.  It keeps well, except for when it gets eaten!! πŸ™‚

I still had a fair amount of apricots left, so I started to wonder what else I could prepare with them.

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Some time ago a friend told me about grilled peaches, so I thought I would try that with the apricots.  For this recipe I chose the firmest apricots I had, as they could otherwise turn to mush very quickly.  I pressed my trusted cast-iron griddle pan into action, and grilled the apricots on the pre-heated griddle, cut side down, for about 5 minutes.

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I topped each apricot with some fresh goat’s cheese, and sprinkled them with freshly ground black pepper and fresh thyme leaves.

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A final drizzle of olive oil, and I had a plate full of the most delicious appetizers.

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They were every bit as good as they look, and really quick and easy to prepare!!

Another recipe I came across during my search was Mary Berry’s apricot frangipane tart.  I followed the recipe pretty much to the letter, except for using fresh apricots where the recipe indicated tinned.  And I’ll admit it right now:  I used ready rolled pastry – time was short, as was the pastry!!  I also ground my own almonds, which accounts for the darker colour of the frangipane.

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The recipe is very straightforward and quick to make, especially if you use ready rolled pastry.

I was getting a little worried when I started to spread the frangipane mixture over the apricots – there seemed to be far too little!

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But I needn’t have worried – Mary Berry is not called the ‘Queen of Baking’ for nothing!!  After 40 minutes in the oven the tart was looking beautiful, and after a couple of hours of cooling off it tasted divine!! πŸ™‚

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There are many more delicious recipes out there, which use apricots – what is your favourite??

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Happy Easter!

Today is Good Friday, and it’s high time I posted again – it’s been a long time! I wrote the article below back in 2016, and I’ll be following the same time-honoured rituals today, dyeing eggs and baking lamb-shaped cakes! Some things never change, whilst others change beyond recognition! I hope you all have a good Easter weekend, wherever you may be!


For as long as I can remember, I have associated Easter with brightly coloured eggs. When we were children, my brothers and I would decorate blown hens’ eggs in the weeks before Easter.  For several weeks before Easter,  instead of cracking eggs open to use them in cooking or baking, a hole would be pierced in either end of the egg (a larger hole in the ‘flatter’ end), and the egg white and yolk would be blown out through the holes.  The resulting blown eggs would be washed and dried before being decorated.  The eggs might be painted, pasted with cut-outs, drizzled with coloured wax – anything and everything was allowed and encouraged as far as decorating techniques went.  The finished eggs would be hung with a piece of thread on the cut branches of forsythia or other flowering shrubs, and they would decorate the house during the Easter festival.

In the run-up to Easter, the shops would start selling brightly coloured hard-boiled eggs – you would be able to find them right next to the fresh eggs, in virtually every store!  They were always looking so perfect and shiny – as though they had been laquered.  Maybe they had been???  Those store-bought eggs didn’t make it into our house very often.  Instead, my brothers and I would help mum dye hard boiled hens’ eggs on Good Friday.  It’s a tradition I still keep alive, all these many years later!

There are a number of ways to dye the eggs using various natural vegetable dyes such as beetroot and spinach juice, or dried onion skins.  An easier and foolproof way, is to use  ready-made egg dyes.  One of my sisters-in-law sent me a packet this year – thank you Veronika!!

It’s best to dye the eggs just after they have been boiled and while they are still warm.  I put all my eggs into one pan (no, not into one basket!! πŸ™‚ ) and covered them with cold water.  When they started to boil I set the timer for six minutes.

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While the eggs were cooking, I prepared the dyes.

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The packet contained five colour papers:  red, orange, green, blue and yellow – a rainbow of colours!  πŸ™‚  Since yellow does not really change the colour of brown eggs, I added that in with the orange.  Into each cup were put two tablespoons of white vinegar, 250ml of boiling water, and one dye-paper.

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Once the eggs had finished cooking, I briefly ran them under the cold tap, before they went into the dye bath, one at a time for each colour.

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They emerged totally transformed!!

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Bit by bit my egg box was filling up with wonderfully coloured eggs!  Below are the last four:

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This is a picture of the dye I used for this batch of eggs.  You should be able to find something like that on one of the internet mail-order sites or in your grocery store?

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To make them shine, the eggs can be rubbed with a little bit of olive oil.

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Baking a cake in the shape of a lamb is another Easter tradition in my family.  Some years ago, I was lucky enough to inherit my grandmother’s baking tin.  Nowadays, if I am home for Easter, I will bake at least one cake in that mould.  For the cake recipe, I looked at Gaston Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries.  It’s a wonderful book, full of very precise and easy to follow recipes.  I used his Genoise recipe, a very light sponge cake.

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The ingredients are very simple:  eggs, sugar, flour, butter and vanilla flavoured sugar!

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Three eggs are mixed with 78g of sugar and the vanilla flavoured sugar in a heat proof bowl – I used the bowl of my stand mixer for this.  The bowl is then set over boiling water, and the eggs are whisked for one minute – no more!  I then put the bowl on the mixer, and whisked the egg/sugar mixture on high speed for two minutes, and on medium low speed for another five minutes or a little longer, until it was cool and very white and thick.

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While all the whisking was going on, I brushed both halves of the mould very carefully with melted butter, and gave them a light dusting of flour, to prevent the finished cake from sticking to the mould.  I also melted 23g of butter for the cake mix.

When the egg mixture was ready, I sifted 78g of flour over it and folded it in gently.  Then I added the melted and cooled butter, and folded that in too.  The finished mix was poured into the mould, and the cake was baked in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees for 30 minutes.  For the first cake I had set the oven to the wrong function (regular convection rather than fan-assisted), so the cake did not turn out from the mould as easily as it should have.

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I baked another one right away, using the fan-assist setting, and it turned out near perfect!

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And here they are – decorated with a dusting of icing sugar and some tiny bells hung with red ribbon around their necks, and surrounded by some dyed eggs!

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Do you have a special Easter tradition?  Would you would like to share it with me?

Open again!

On October 30, 2020, restaurants, bars and cafes all over France had to close their doors to the public as part of another lockdown. At the time, nobody had any idea as to how long they would have to remain closed, but I don’t think that anyone expected the closure to last as long as it did! Finally, on May 19, 2021 – after six and a half months!! – restaurants, bars and cafes were allowed to serve customers once more. To begin with, diners are only allowed to be seated outside, with tables widely spaced, and the 9pm curfew still in place – but it’s a start!

When you think about how important a role food plays in French life and culture, you can imagine what a deprivation it has been not being able to go out for a meal. Even a glass of wine or a coffee on one of the terraces of the cafes was out of bounds!

I visited Cafe de la Paix in Saint-Chinian last Saturday evening to catch up with friends, and to enjoy a meal prepared by someone else!

The bar at Cafe de la Paix

Cafe de la Paix was taken over by David and Eve four years ago, and they’ve been working hard to improve the guest experience. The garden has had a complete makeover, the gravel being replaced with paving. There is new (comfortable) terrace furniture, and the place has had a general sprucing up inside and outside!!

The garden at Cafe de la Paix

The menu has also had a makeover – the focus is now on bistro cooking and appetising presentation!

Here now are photos of the dishes we enjoyed! πŸ™‚ First off, a couple of delicious starters

Pissaladiere onion tart with smoked trout
Vegetable tart with shavings of Spanish ham

The main courses were equally delicious, and it was bliss to just sit there and have someone bring the food to the table!!

Filet of seabream on a bed of pasta with mussels
Rump steak with red wine sauce and potato gratin
Duck with olives

Our desserts arrived as it was slowly getting darker. The weather was perfect and I didn’t need to put on the jacket I had brought in case I got too cold! The desserts were a yummy ending to a lovely meal!!

Chocolate mousse, chocolate granola, and buckwheat ice cream
Strawberry eclair with strawberry sorbet
Cherry creme brulΓ©e

Because of the 9pm curfew, the restaurant had opened at 6.30pm to give diners ample time to enjoy a leisurely meal – it worked very well for us! If you have been to France in the past, you may remember that most restaurants don’t start to serve dinner before 7.30pm. I imagine that we’ll go back to this later starting time once the curfew gets abolished altogether later this summer.

As we head into summer, things are looking a lot more upbeat and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll continue that way.

Have you visited your favourite restaurant in France yet?

Asparagus time!

Each spring, I await the coming of the asparagus seller to the weekly market with eager anticipation! Asparagus can be had in the supermarkets well before it arrives at the weekly farmers market, but the supermarket offerings have often travelled a fair distance and are not as fresh as they should be. Most vegetables lose some of their quality if stored too long after harvesting, and asparagus is no exception! The sooner it is eaten after being harvested, the better!! I like to eat the first asparagus of the season simply boiled and served with melted butter and some steamed new potatoes. Once I’ve had my fill of it that way, I will prepare it in different ways.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend suggested that I try Jane Grigson’s recipe for Asparagus and Chicken Gratin. The recipe can be found in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, a wonderful collection of delicious recipes for pretty much every kind of vegetable, and one which I just happen to have on my bookshelf! πŸ™‚ . To sum up the recipe, cooked asparagus is layered with cooked chicken, a white sauce is poured over and the whole is topped with grated cheese, breadcrumbs and some melted butter before being baked until golden and bubbly. Sounds simple – and it’s incredibly delicious!!

The ingredients call for 500 g of asparagus and half a large roasted chicken. Since I don’t prepare roasted chicken very often, I bought three chicken leg quarters from the new poultry stand in the market (that’s a story for another article – I promise!) and roasted them.

I cut a thin slice from the end of each stem and peeled the lower parts of the asparagus in order to minimise waste. I cut the prepared asparagus stems into approximately 5 cm pieces before cooking them in boiling salted water.

I drained the asparagus pieces when they were just tender but retained a bit of bite, and refreshed them in cold water. I set the cooking liquid aside as that was to be used for the white sauce. Here are the main ingredients ready to be layered:

For the white sauce I used 1.5 tbsp of butter and 1.5 tbsp of flour, 300 ml of asparagus cooking water, and 150 ml of cream. For extra flavour, I also added the residue left behind in the tin from roasting the chicken!! I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper and cooked it until it was nice and thick.

While the sauce was cooking, I put a layer of asparagus into my gratin dish from Poterie Not, and topped that with the diced chicken, which I topped with the remaining asparagus. I decided to use the tips for the top layer and to arrange them in a pretty pattern, but you can do it any way you like. I did not want to overfill my gratin dish, so I filled a smaller dish as well.

I poured the white sauce evenly over the filled gratin dishes and sprinkled the tops with breadcrumbs and grated comte cheese. Grigson specified cheddar cheese in her recipe, but alas, it’s not easy to find cheddar in our part of France.

Once the melted butter was drizzled over the gratin, it was ready to go into the oven. The recipe called for a moderate to high temperature – I set the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade and baked it for about half an hour. While the gratin was in the oven, I prepared some tender broad beans which I had picked in my garden that morning. The pods were very young with the beans hardly developed, so I steamed them whole.

Here’s the finished gratin – it was divinely delicious and well worth the effort that went into its preparation!! Do give it a try if you get a chance!

What’s your favourite way of eating asparagus?

Festival foods

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. During the Middle Ages, that day meant the start to 40 days of strict religious fasting. Dairy products along with meat and eggs were forbidden foods until 1491, when Pope Julius III allowed Catholics to eat butter/oil, eggs, cheese, and milk during Lent. Until 1491, people had to find ways to use up the ‘forbidden ingredients’ before Ash Wednesday, and thus were born some of the foods which today are still associated with this time of year. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday is synonymous with pancakes, a dish with simple ingredients – flour, eggs, milk, butter. Making pancakes the day before the fasting started was a way to use up all those ingredients rather than throw them out or, perish the thought, risk sinning!!

In Germany, doughnuts or Krapfen are traditionally eaten during the Carnival celebrations which precede Ash Wednesday. The ingredients are pretty much the same as for pancakes, so this is another recipe which uses up ‘forbidden foods’! Following a recent phone call with my parents where we chatted about Carnival and food, I developed a serious craving for doughnuts!! I knew that none of the shop-bought doughnuts would satisfy that craving – they are nice enough, but they just don’t measure up to a freshly-made yeast-raised doughnut!! Bakeries in France don’t tend to make deep fried pastries, so doughnuts are usually bought-in. And more often than not they are made with baking powder rather than yeast.

So, the only way I could satisfy my craving was to make the doughnuts myself – and that’s exactly what I did!! I started my search for a recipe in my grandmother’s old Regensburger Kochbuch – a book which has seen much use over the decades! It is one of those old-fashioned encyclopaedic cookery books where there are no pictures (yes, none whatsoever!! :)) and where the instructions for each recipe are kept to a minimum. In the picture below you have all the ingredients I used, apart from the oil I used for frying. Just so that there is no confusion – I was going to make jam (or jelly) filled doughnuts!

I used 500 g flour, 25 g fresh baker’s yeast, 1/2 tsp fine salt, 250 ml milk, 4 egg yolks, 80 g butter, 50 g icing sugar (you can use regular sugar too), 1 tbsp rum, and the finely grated zest from one lemon. I also used one jar of apricot jam for filling the doughnuts and icing sugar to dust the cooked doughnuts. I compared various other recipes and they all seemed to agree on the flour and egg ratio. The rum was not in the recipe in my grandmother’s book, but I had a little left in the bottle, and I thought it would do no harm. In case you are wondering, it didn’t, quite the opposite in fact!

I warmed the milk to lukewarm and dissolved the yeast in four tablespoons of the warm milk. To the remaining milk I added the butter, sugar, salt, and the egg yolks, and mixed it until blended. I put the flour into the bowl of my stand mixer, made a well in the centre and put in the dissolved yeast. With the mixer running on low speed, I added the milk/egg/etc. mixture, the lemon zest, and the rum, and left the machine to do the work until a soft dough formed. Once that was done, I increased the speed of the mixer a little and let it knead the dough for 10 minutes while I had a cup of tea. πŸ™‚

Here’s what the finished dough looked like:

I covered the bowl and let the dough rise – the kitchen was not very warm that day, so I heated the oven to 50 degrees centigrade, turned it off and put the covered dough in the oven. It was lovely and cosy in there and in next to no time the dough looked like this:

Looks fabulous, doesn’t it?? I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and deflated it by kneading it a little. I then used a rolling pin to flatten the dough to a thickness of about 2 cm. Using a round cookie cutter (mine was about 8 cm in diameter) I cut out rounds which weighed about 50 g each. I put the rounds on a lightly floured cloth and covered them to rise once more. I formed the dough scraps into balls which also weighed 50 g each.

While the doughnuts were rising, I prepared the oil bath. I used grape-seed oil because of its neutral flavour and also because of it’s fairly high smoke point (420 F / 215 C). I also like using grape-seed oil because it is a byproduct from winemaking! ;). I prepared my cooling racks by lining them with paper towels, and I sieved the apricot jam to remove any bits and skins which might block the nozzle of the filling tube.

And then it was time to start the frying – the doughnuts were beautifully puffed up, and the oil was at the right temperature, 320 F / 160 C.

After three minutes I flipped them over and cooked them for a further 2 minutes.

The oil always bubbled a little more once doughnuts were flipped over, but it was easy cooking without any splattering. I cooked the doughnuts in four batches and left them to cool before I filled them with the apricot jam. Just before serving, I dusted them with icing sugar.

They were beautifully fluffy and the outside had a slight crunch – heavenly! The flavour was fabulous with a hint of lemon and rum. They definitely hit the spot and fulfilled my craving!!

Have you ever made your own doughnuts? How do you like your doughnuts filled? Or do you prefer your doughnuts with a hole in the middle??

Back from the edge!

My last article ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger for many of you. I’d not intended it to be thus, but I felt that continuing the article would have made it too long. For those of you who have not read the previous article, I am on a quest to recreate a recipe for nut braid – a delicious treat during my childhood days. In today’s article I’ll describe how I made my own croissant pastry and how I baked yet another nut braid with it.

Before I embarked on making my own croissant pastry, I checked several of my cookery books to compare the different recipes. Croissant pastry is similar to puff pastry – a basic dough which, to use the technical term, gets ‘laminated’ with fat (butter in this case) to create many separate layers. Croissant pastry differs from puff pastry in that the basic dough has yeast in it, giving it extra rise and a less brittle texture compared to puff pastry.

After reading through the various recipes, I decided to make the version found in Gaston Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries, a book which I cherish for the precision of its recipes and its clear instructions, and for the fact that the results are always delicious! If you enjoy baking, it is a cookery book which I can highly recommend. It was published in 1981 and is long out of print, but you may be able to find a second-hand copy on the internet.

The ingredients for croissant pastry are very simple: flour, water, yeast, milk, sugar and butter. It’s the proportions of the ingredients and the technique which produce the magical results!

In the picture above you can see all the ingredients for the croissant dough:

18 g baker’s yeast dissolved in 1 1/2 tbsp of warm water, 50 g sugar, 15 g salt, 2 tbsp milk, 40 g butter, 125 ml water, 125 ml milk, 500 g flour, 260 g butter.

These quantities make enough dough for two nut braids or one nut braid and 15 croissants or some danish pastries. The dough is best made in a stand mixer, but you can also make it with a hand mixer or by hand.

Mix the sugar and salt with 2 tbsp of milk in a small bowl. Melt 40 g butter over low heat, add the 125 ml of milk and the water, and heat until lukewarm. Put the flour in your mixing bowl. On low speed add the sugar/milk mixture to the flour, then add the butter/milk/water mixture and beat for about a minute, then add the dissolved yeast and beat until a dough forms. It will be very light and lukewarm.

Cover the bowl (with a towel or lid) and let the dough rise for about an hour or until doubled in size. Can you see the difference in the picture below?

When the dough has “grown” sufficiently, remove it from the bowl and put it into a lightly floured shallow baking dish, patting it into an even thickness. Cover and refrigerate for two to three hours.

Half an hour before you continue to work on the dough, take half the butter (130 g) from the fridge and allow it to soften. When you are ready to start rolling, take the dough from the fridge and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Roll it into a rectangle

Cover two thirds of the dough with the softened butter.

Fold the unbuttered third over the butter…

… then fold the double layer over the buttered part so that you end up with a neat rectangle and no butter showing.

Turn this parcel of dough 90 degrees to the left or right and roll it out again into a rectangle, then repeat the folding into thirds. The dough now consists of 9 layers! Now it’s time to cover the dough and return it to the fridge to rest for 2 hours or overnight. Remember to remove the remaining 130 g of butter from the fridge half an hour before you want to continue to work with the dough. Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and repeat the buttering, folding and turning again. Roll the dough into a rectangle of 20 x 25 cm, cover it and return it to the fridge for an hour.

And there you have it: the croissant dough is ready!! I’m not sure of the maths, but the dough should now have 81 layers! To begin with, I was daunted by the prospect of all that rolling and folding, but it wasn’t actually that difficult! It was more a question of getting organised and getting the timing right.

With the dough ready and resting, it was time to prepare the filling ingredients for the nut braid: 100 g almonds, 100 g hazelnuts, 3 egg whites, 3 tbsp sugar, 1/4 tsp cinnamon. The egg yolks in the picture below are NOT used in the filling, they are only there to brighten up the picture! πŸ™‚

I used my trusted old mouli hand grater to grate the nuts – mine has three drums, one for fine, a second one for coarse grating, and a third for slicing. I ground the nuts coarsely as that gives a better texture to the filling. I also turned on the oven to pre-heat at 190 degrees Centigrade.

All the other ingredients were added to the grated nuts and mixed to a paste.

Next, I divided the dough into two halves after it had rested in the fridge. One half was wrapped and put back in the fridge (to be used for a second nut braid). I rolled the other half into a rectangle on a lightly floured surface, until the dough was about as thick as a 1 Euro coin. I spread the nut mixture evenly over the dough, using my fingers – I found that to be easier than using a spatula. Yes, I did wash my hands beforehand, and yes it was a little messy, but I washed my hands again afterwards! πŸ™‚

I rolled the dough from the short end, swiss-roll fashion, and pinched the seams together. My roll was a little long, so I cut some slices from each end, to make nut pinwheels. Then I cut the roll in half lengthwise…

… and twisted the two strands around one-another, with the cut sides facing upwards. Voila, the braid and the pinwheels ready on the baking sheet:

I baked the braid for approximately 40 minutes (the pinwheels were ready earlier). I left it to cool on a cake rack after it was baked, then iced it with a glaze made with 1 cup icing sugar, a little water and 1/4 tsp cinnamon powder. Here’s what it looked like:

It was really delicious – crispy edges, buttery pastry and a lovely nutty filling! The result was very close to what I remember from my youth!! Perhaps the next one will be perfection?? πŸ™‚

Are you tempted to bake this?