Hot and cross

Since today is Good Friday, I thought I should  write about Hot Cross Buns for today’s post.  I looked at recipes in several cookery books:  Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Angela Piper’s The Archers’ Cookbook, and Reader’s Digest’s Farmhouse Cookery: Recipes from a Country Kitchen.  For good measure, I also looked at Felicity Cloake’s recipe for Hot Cross Buns on the Guardian website.

The origins of the hot cross bun are somewhat hazy – Elizabeth David has not a great deal to say about the history, and other articles on the subject don’t offer much more.  During Elizabethan times a law was passed forbidding the sale of spice buns except at funerals, on Good Friday and at Christmas.  Elizabeth David does not relate whether the spice buns sold on Good Fridays in Elizabethan times had a cross on them, but she’s fairly categorical in her dismissal of putting a cross on the buns in pastry or with candied peel as “unnecessary fiddling work”.  I do love her no-nonsense style of writing!!

I also love Elizabeth David’s sweet spice mixture, which she gives in her book.  It consists of two parts nutmeg, two parts white or black peppercorns or allspice berries, one part cinnamon bark, one part cloves and one part dried ginger root.  I mis-read the recipe, or perhaps wanted to, and added white peppercorns AND allspice berries! 🙂

My new kitchen scales seem to be fairly precise, so I weighed the nutmeg and used that weight as the basis for the other spices.  My small electric coffee grinder did a great job of reducing the spices to a fine powder.  The smell of the ground spices was divine and filled the whole kitchen!

Once I had studied the recipes on my kitchen table very carefully, I decided to use the proportions of Felicity Cloake’s recipe, but with some modifications.  In her recipe, the milk is heated and left to infuse with the spices – I used Elizabeth David’s spice mix and added it to the flour.  Instead of regular white wheat flour, I used Type 130 spelt flour, which is not quite white but not quite wholemeal either.  Felicity Cloake’s recipe also had the highest amount of currants, so I reduced their weight a little, to 125g.  Other than that, I followed the ingredients of her recipe.

I made the dough at lunchtime, so it could have a slow rise during the afternoon.  After the initial mixing I let the dough sit for five minutes so that the flour could absorb the liquid.  After that “hydration” period, the dough was still a little too soft for my liking, so I kneaded in an additional three tablespoons of flour.  Then I covered the bowl with a lid and let the yeast cells do their work!

At the end of the afternoon, the dough was well risen and had a lovely aroma!  The partially deflated dough looked like this, you can see lots of air bubbles around the edges:

The currants and mixed peel were kneaded into the dough after it was deflated.

Then it was time to portion out the dough.  I weighed the entire dough and then divided it into 16 individual portions, weighing about 70g each.

I shaped the pieces of dough into balls and flattened them slightly.  Once I had my two baking trays filled with the buns, I used my dough scraper to cut a cross into eight of the buns – pushing the straight side of the dough scraper right through and effectively cutting the buns into quarters.  As the dough was quite soft, the cuts ‘healed’ up again but stayed visible.  On the other eight buns I used a knife to cut a cross into the top of each bun.

Whilst I was doing the shaping of the buns, I had turned on my oven on the defrost setting, which warms to 50 degrees – perfect for proofing yeast dough.  Once the buns were shaped, I turned off the oven and put the trays in.  It was just a little warmer than in my kitchen, and produced beautifully risen buns within 30 minutes.

Once the buns were risen enough, I mixed a couple of tablespoons of plain flour and some water into a stiff-ish paste and put it into a piping bag fitted with a small nozzle.  Then I piped crossing lines on the buns.  I had prepared some egg-wash to brush the buns with before piping on the cross, but forgot to do that – oh no!!

Some of the buns which I had cut with the dough scraper did not get a cross piped on – I had run out of the mixture. 😦

I put the trays into the cold oven and turned it on to 200 degrees centigrade.  With yeast dough, I have found that starting with a cold oven can produce wonderful “oven spring”, as the yeast goes into overdrive before being killed off by the heat.  After 10 minutes the buns had puffed up nicely and were starting to brown.  I removed one baking sheet at a time and brushed the buns with egg wash, before putting them in the oven again.  After a further 10 minutes the buns were fully cooked and there was the most beautiful smell permeating the whole house!!  If only this could be a scratch-and-sniff post!!

Traditionally, the buns should be brushed with a sugar glaze as soon as they come out of the oven.  I have done this in the past, but I found that it makes the buns sticky and doesn’t add much more than that, so I gave it a miss this time.

What special foods will you be eating this Easter?

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Sepia toned

About a year ago, I discovered a restaurant in Valras Plage that I’d not been to before!  The restaurant was called Le Sepia, and at the time it had only been open for about 18 months.  I thoroughly enjoyed my meal there and had planned to write a blog post about my experience, but for one reason or another that never happened.

So, a few weeks ago I went to eat at Le Sepia again – purely in the interest of research, you understand!! 🙂

Le Sepia is located close to the seafront, and there’s a big car park close by.  The decor of the dining room has a nautical theme, very apt for a restaurant in a seaside town.  It’s all very discreetly and tastefully done though, so don’t expect ropes and fishing nets to be hanging from the ceiling and such!

The restaurant is run by Yann, the chef, and Isabelle the maitre d’hotel, who bring experience, professionalism and passion to their enterprise!

Our little group went for lunch one Sunday, for a special treat!  While we sipped our aperitifs, we “amused our mouths” (a very overly direct translation of amuse bouche!!) with the following:  parmesan shortbread, fish pate and little savoury chorizo “cakes”.

Two different starters were chosen by our party:  Brittany scallops and foie gras.  The scallops were cooked in their shells with coconut oil and dressed with a coconut sauce.  The scallop shells rested on delicious vegetable crisps, and they were topped with the lightest and crispest of crispy pastry shapes.  Yann hails from Brittany, and he does know how to cook fish – the scallops were cooked to perfection and the whole dish was divine.

My choice of starter was the foie gras – I’m a sucker for that, and I tend to order it whenever I find it on a menu.  The foie gras was accompanied by verjuice jelly (verjuice = juice pressed from unripe grapes), marinated onions and a lovely refreshing salad.  There was also some wonderful toasted country bread to go with the foie gras!

For the main course we had a choice of two dishes – fish or meat!!  🙂  The fish of the day was monkfish: it was cooked in the form of a grilled steak, served on a bed of mashed potatoes, with artichokes, clams, pea shoots and a saffron sauce.  Totally delicious!!

The other choice for main course was fillet steak – the meat came from the Aubrac region of France, which is famous for its beef.  Like the fish, the steak was also perfectly cooked, and it was divinely tender!  It was served with carrot puree, brussels sprouts, spinach and potatoes.

We skipped the cheese course, even though it was very tempting and the selection looked excellent.  Truth is, the portions were not skimpy, so we thought we had better save some room for dessert!!

The desserts were fantastically good!  Here they are:

Vanilla souflee with salted caramel ice cream:

A symphony of chocolate: chocolate shortbread, chocolate mousse, white and dark chocolate ice cream!  Heaven for chocolate lovers!!

Citrus and meringue: a marriage made in heaven!  A crisp meringue basket holding scoops of lemon and gin sorbet, topped with citrus foam and accompanied by a selection of citrus fruit and lemon cream.  Mmmmhhhh!

What a fabulous ending to a great meal!! Be sure you book your table if you want to enjoy the delicious food at Sepia.  You can find contact details on the website for the restaurant.

After that wonderful lunch, it was time for a walk along the seafront!  It was a beautifully sunny day,  perfect for a stroll!

Thank you, Kay, for such a special Sandy Sunday treat!

Guilty pleasures

A recent trip to the UK meant staying overnight in Tain l’Hermitage, a town that is about an hour south of Lyon.  Close by is Crozes Hermitage, well-known for its excellent wines, but for me, the main attraction of the area was the Valrhona chocolate factory!!

I had timed my visit to Tain l’Hermitage so that I would have the afternoon to indulge in visiting the Cite du Chocolat, the interactive chocolate “museum”.

The impressive building sports a huge version of the iconic black chocolate box, which was introduced by Valrhona in the 1970s.

The side of the building also looked as though it had been decorated with over-sized chocolate boxes!!

Inside, it is ALL about chocolate!  And here’s a tip – at the entrance, opposite the cash desk, you’ll find lockers, where you can put your coats and bags.  Use them! It’s a lot more fun to go around the exhibition without having to carry anything!

Various interactive displays allow you to sharpen your senses – and eat chocolate!  🙂
Dulcey is a white chocolate with a caramel flavour, and Jivara is a milk chocolate!  I’m not normally a fan of white chocolate, I find it too sweet and cloying, but I’ve become a fan of Dulcey!!  And Jivara was very delicious too!

One of the exhibits explained the processing of cocoa beans from the arrival at the factory to the finished product.  The videos showed the various stages of production, with comments by Valrhona employees.  At some of the stages there were little tastes of chocolate, including some 100% cocoa chocolate and pure cocoa butter.  The 100% chocolate tasted very bitter but there were all kinds of fruity notes and it was energising in a caffeine way!!  The cocoa butter had no taste at all!  The little oval pieces of chocolate are called feves and are made for the professional market.  Because of their shape they melt readily.  The big blocks are also aimed at the professionals, but there’s nothing stopping you from buying either of these products in the shop at the end of your tour.

At the bottom of the stairs to the first floor (2nd floor US) was the machine in the picture below – a chocolate enrobing machine!!  The machine covers passing bits of “candy” (squares of praline in this case) with melted chocolate.  The big tank below the conveyor belt holds melted chocolate at a temperature of 44.5 degrees centigrade. An ingenious pumping system cools the chocolate to 28 degrees centigrade, before warming it again to 31.5 degrees centigrade, at which point it is used to enrobe. Any excess chocolate runs back into the tank where it is heated once more and so on.  The process of heating, cooling and heating is called tempering, and it results in a finished chocolate that has a nice shine and cracks when bitten into it.

On the first floor were displays of how Valrhona chocolate could be used in various desserts, cakes and Belgian style chocolates.  AND of course there were more chocolates to be tasted.

Another display showed the development of the company, which was founded in 1922.  In the early days, Valrhona chocolate was only sold to professionals.

Old packaging, publicity items and tools were also on display.

At the start of my visit, when I bought the entrance ticket, the cashier asked if I wanted to participate in a half-hour workshop – the theme was praline.  I’m always interested in learning new things, so for an extra Euro I got my ticket for that workshop!

Praline is made from sugar and nuts, usually in equal proportions.  The sugar is either caramelised, with the nuts added when the caramel is a dark amber colour; or sugar and nuts are “cooked” together until the sugar starts to melt.  The two different types of preparation give very different results, but in both cases the sugar/nut mixture has to be ground for several hours, in order to obtain a smooth praline paste – not something that I would want to do at home!  The resulting praline has a 45% fat content (from the nuts).

Depending on the nuts used, even though no chocolate is added, its taste can be similar to that well-known brand of chocolate spread – you know the one I mean!!  I got to taste the different types of praline, but for me they were too rich, even though they were delicious.  I preferred the sugar-coated roasted nuts which I was allowed to taste at the beginning of the workshop.  In order to use praline as a chocolate centre, cocoa butter is added to make the praline firm at room temperature.  A taste of that kind of chocolate was included too, and it was delicious! 🙂

After all that chocolate tasting, my belly was starting to ache – I never thought I would be able to overdose on chocolate, and I blamed it on the praline!! 🙂

Finally it was time to visit the shop!!  I had visited Valrhona a long time ago, before the Cite du Chocolat had opened, so I knew that the shop was an Aladdin’s cave of chocolate and more chocolate!!

Best of all, all the plain chocolates on sale could also be tasted, in case one couldn’t remember what they were like in the first place!! The selection is vast, and I had some difficulties in making my choices!  I bought a 1 kilo bag of Guanaja feves, which contains 70% cocoa – it makes a wonderful chocolate mousse!  And I bought several smaller bags of feves of different types.  You can buy Valrhona chocolate on-line, but one of the nice things of visiting the shop – apart from being able to taste pretty much everything – is that the checkout staff always put some small presents in your bag!! 🙂

After my visit at Valrhona had ended, I went for a little walk along the Rhone – the name of the chocolate factory is an amalgam of Rhone Valley, and the river is close by!

Getting to Tain l’Hermitage is easy – the town is just by the A7 motorway, about an hour’s drive south of Lyon.  From Saint-Chinian the drive takes just three hours.  Tain also has a railway station, and the chocolate factory is only 800m from the station!!

The Cite du Chocolat is open seven days a week, and it is better to visit in the early morning than in the afternoon (fewer people).

I stayed overnight at the hotel Pavillon de l’Ermitage – a very comfortable hotel with spacious rooms, halfway between the railway station and Valrhona.

Happiness on a plate

Before my Christmas break I met up with friends at L’Auberge de Combes for a pre-holiday treat!  We were all in a festive mood, so we decided to splash on the Regalade du Chef menu, loosely translated as The Chef’s Feast.  It really was a feast as you’ll see from what follows!

If you’ve read my blog post about one of my previous visits to the restaurant, you may remember that Combes is located high up on the flanks of Mont Caroux.  We were lucky to be given a table by the picture windows of the restaurant.  The day we visited was a ‘moody’ day, with mists rising from the valleys below – it was magical!

The amuse bouche set the tone – three beautiful morsels:  chicken liver parfait with crispy onions, a perfectly cooked razor clam with crispy bacon, and a small pot of cauliflower and wild mushroom soup.

Our starter was a “cappuccino” of wild mushrooms and chestnuts, with little morsels of melsat, a kind of white pudding.

Next came the fish course: a lemongrass risotto with scallops and squid, served with a langoustine bouillon.  The flavours were wonderful and the seafood was perfectly cooked!

Earlier, when we ordered, we had to make a tough decision – foie gras or game?  The foie gras was pan-fried and served on a bed of truffled mashed potatoes, the whole topped with a large slice of black truffle!!  Heaven for lovers of foie gras!!

The game option was equally delicious – venison steak served with the most amazing beetroot puree, braised vegetables and a wonderful potato puree!

Next followed the cheese course, and for this course there were two options: either a plate of four perfectly sized pieces of perfectly ripened cheese!  No fuss, no frills, pure enjoyment!

     – Or toasted sourdough bread topped with roquefort cheese, sliced pears and mixed lettuce – also excellent!

Our meal ended with some ‘fireworks’ of desserts!!

Flambeed banana with vanilla ice cream and crispy wafers.

Chestnut shortbread topped with chestnut mousse and served with chestnut ice cream.

Crispy puff pastry, filled with caramel cream and served with caramel ice cream.

We finished the meal with coffee – it was served in a rather original fashion!!  A table leg had been adapted to hold the coffee cups, spoons and a small plate of oreillettes, crispy deep-fried pastry dusted with icing sugar.  What a way to end this meal!

If you fancy treating yourself to a meal at L’Auberge de Combes, be sure to reserve!  You can find all the contact details on their website.  I am pretty sure that you won’t be disappointed!

Happy New Year!

May the new year bring us all peace, health and prosperity!!

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season!!  Mine was spent in Germany, with family and friends, and the break was relaxing and restful!  It was great to re-connect with cousins that I hadn’t seen in years – there was plenty of catching-up to do!

There are many different traditions in the world to welcome the new year.  In Germany, chimney sweeps, four-leaf clovers and little piggies are some of the things that symbolise good luck – you can buy little gifts with those themes all over the place.

I decided to make little piggies from marzipan, to give as presents to friends and family at the start of the new year.  They are not difficult to make, I promise!!

Here’s what you need:

  • Plain marzipan
  • Red food colouring or beetroot juice
  • A little icing sugar
  • Cloves or nigella seeds for the eyes
  • Slivered almonds for the ears
  • New pennies or one cent pieces

As you can see, I didn’t have new one cent pieces – the bank didn’t have any new ones.  So here’s a trick to make them shine like new:  I mixed a couple of tablespoons of clear (spirit) vinegar with a few pinches of salt.  All I had to do was to add the coins to the vinegar and watch the patina disappear.  Then I removed the coins from the vinegar, and rinsed and dried them. In no time at all I ended up with a nice pile of shiny coins!!

To make the pigs, I broke the marzipan into pieces, added the food colouring (I used beetroot juice) and kneaded the marzipan until it was evenly coloured.  A little icing sugar helped to offset the added liquid, so that the marzipan did not get too soft.

Here’s what it looked like when it was all finished:

For each pig, I rolled one ball the size of a small walnut and five small balls that were a little smaller than a pea.  The larger ball was elongated a little for the body and four of the little balls formed the feet.  The fifth little ball was used to make the snout, flattened somewhat.  I also rolled a tiny little sausage shape for the tail.

With the help of a toothpick I made two holes in the snout, and then I added the cloves and almond slivers for the eyes and ears.  The piggies were finished off with the lucky pennies in their backs.

I used up all the marzipan – it made quite a few piggies and no two were the same!  My little four-year-old nephews helped me count them, and they even gave names to some of them! 🙂

I left the tray with the piggies out to dry overnight.  The following day I wrapped them.  First I cut cardboard discs, which I covered with silver (aluminium) foil.

 I wrapped each little piggie up in some cellophane, decorated the parcel with some ribbons – et voila!

Of course my little nephews each got a piggie on New Year’s Day!  No prizes for guessing – they had eaten theirs before January 2nd!! 🙂

 

First Class

Question: When does a restaurant automatically become first class?  Answer: When it’s in a former post office!  This pun will be more obvious to British readers – in Britain letters can be sent 1st or 2nd class, which translates to priority and regular mail in most other countries! 🙂

La Carte Timbree in Thezan-les-Beziers is in the former village post office AND it really is a first class restaurant!  I discovered this restaurant with friends, after I had heard about it on the grapevine.  Mathieu (the chef) and Chloe (front of house) transformed the old village post office into a modern and welcoming restaurant – if you have a look at their Facebook post here, you can see that the transformation was pretty radical and far-reaching!  But the end result is a great space, a modern dining room that manages to feel warm and welcoming.  Here’s my attempt at photographing the dining room:The lunchtime menu changes every day, and the a-la-carte menu changes once a month – to make the most of seasonal produce, according to the chef.  It’s also more fun to regularly have new dishes to cook!

This was the lunchtime menu the day I visited:

The starter was a creamy carrot soup spiced with curry and coconut milk, and accompanied by slices of toasted baguette topped with lemon flavoured goats’ cheese!  A great combination and very tasty!!

The main course was a stir fry or “wok” as it’s called in France, naming the dish after the pan it is cooked in.  Rice noodles had been sauteed with chicken and vegetables and seasoned in the style of Thai dishes.  Very yummy and just the right size portion!

The dessert of the day was a tarte tatin which had been made with quinces instead of apples.  I will have to experiment with that at home – the flavour was exquisite and it made a perfect ending to our meal!

The lunchtime menu is priced at 18 Euros for three courses, including either a glass of wine or coffee!  The evening menu (choose from the dishes on the a-la-carte menu) is priced at 28 Euros for three courses and 32 Euros for four courses.  They have vegetarian options available.  You’ll be able to find full details on the website for the restaurant.  La Carte Timbree is open for lunch every day except Monday and for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday inclusive.

I’ll definitely be going back to La Carte Timbree – it’s been added to my list of go-to restaurants!  And next time I might even explore the village a little more!