Half Scottish, Half Japanese. Tempura Mars bar?

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I began writing this blog in October 2010 as a new father documenting food in his family. Before I knew it, I was in the final of MasterChef 2012. Now cooking is no longer just a hobby.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Chocolate and hazelnut buns

This week on Masterchef the contestants faced a vegetarian test. I wasn't sure whether to be amused or uncomfortable when Yotam Ottolenghi told James (the carpenter from Milton Keynes) that he "looked like a carnivore". James responded awkardly "That's alright, you look like a rabbit."

Torode and Wallace couldn't decide who should join Kennedy in leaving the competition. In my view, Tom, Sara and James all failed to shine, but the judges overlooked the fact that James glaringly defeated the object by producing "the only dessert". I wouldn't have minded if he'd been inventive enough to produce a dessert using naturally sweet vegetables such as carrots or sweetcorn.

I have now abstained from meat for over a week and although I haven't missed it too much I have found it challenging to cook without it. I have found that Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines lend themselves to a vegetarian diet. You can enliven vegetables, pulses or tofu with strong flavours such as cumin, chilli, coriander and ginger. Moreover, meze style dishes and curries are less exposed to the absence of animal protein than the 'meat and two veg' format. Here are some of the things I have been cooking this week:

Cauliflower fritters with chilli and coriander yoghurt
Thai red curry with aubergine, mushrooms and green beans
Asian chick pea salad with peppers, soy sauce and sesame dressing
Butter bean and cauliflower jalfrezi
Sweet potato and cauliflower coconut curry
Chick pea and spinach curry
Lentil moussaka

I tried a vegetarian Japanese restaurant near Kings Cross for lunch on Tuesday but I wasn't compelled. I enjoy pickled vegetables, steamed greens, braised carrots, sesame dressed seaweed as side dishes or condiments, but a bento box needs some grilled fish or meat!

My biggest temptation this week was sausages. The prospect of home baked white bread, pork and leek sausages, rocket and chilli jam was very tempting. To assuage my temptation, I made Chocolate and Hazelnut buns (this doesn't count as packaged chocolate, which I have also given up for Lent).

Thanks to Matt for pointing me in the direction of Dan Lepard's sour cream white bread - I shall try it this weekend. Here is the recipe for Chocolate and Hazelnut buns.

For the dough:
350g strong white flour
10g dry yeast (a generous teaspoon)
5g salt (half a teaspoon)
20g sugar
50g melted butter
1 beaten egg
150ml warm milk

For the filling:
100g of chopped hazelnuts
75g sugar
25 g cocoa

1. Mix all the dough ingredients together and knead by hand or food processor for 5 minutes.
2. Put the dough in a bowl, cover with cling film or a damp tea towel and leave for 2 hours.
3. Go for a run or read the papers while the dough is rising.
4. Preheat the oven to 180 Celcius, prepare the chocolate hazelnut filling and make the buns.

5. Blend the hazelnuts, cocoa and sugar together in a food processor for a 30-60 seconds.

6. Roll the dough out to somewhere between an A4 and A3 sheet of paper (1-2cm thick).
7. Spread about 25g-50g softened butter over the dough to absorb the filling.
8. Sprinkle the chocolate filling over the butter.
Sprinkle the chocolate filling over the butter.

9. Roll the dough from the long side.
10. Cut the rolled dough log at about 4cm intervals.
11. Grease a baking tin, or line with silicone lining.
12. Put the rolls next to each other - so that they have soft sides when you break them apart.
Cut the rolled dough log at about 4cm intervals.

13. Bake for 25 minutes, until they are golden brown.
14. Leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling tray.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


This week, Hector first tried solid food. He had a couple of spoonfuls of baby rice on Saturday and Sunday. I'm not entirely convinced he wouldn't have preferred his bottle of milk, judging by the fact that much of it ended up in his eyebrows.

On Sunday evening, I got out my newest kitchen accessory. Jemma doesn't normally approve the acquisition of kitchen gadgets but this one is a food processor that can puree baby food. I considered Magimix and Kitchen Aid, but in the end chose a British manufacturer, Kenwood (named after the company founder, Ken Wood). It can blend, chop, slice, knead, mix and grate. It can make freshly squeezed orange juice or pressed apple juice. It comes with a mill that can grind coffee, herbs and spices and a blending jug for making soups and smoothies. I quite like it.

So Hector has now had pureed carrots. He isn't the only one on a vegetarian diet. On Shrove Tuesday, Jemma and I made pancakes and discussed what we would give up for Lent. Jemma gave up Chocolate, Crisps and Cakes. I have given up Meat, Coffee and packaged chocolate (there was a tub of Nutella that I couldn't finish with my pancakes).

I do enjoy meat, but I have been reading a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Although not entirely compelling, it has made me reconsider the amount of meat I eat. I realised that too many omnivores now take meat for granted when I read that Americans eat 150 times as much chicken as they did 80 years ago.

So far, I'm not missing meat. We'll see how I feel by Easter but I certainly won't be touching any chicken wings or hamburgers ever again.

White bread

Is it just me or are there a lot of chefs on TV? Raymond Blanc's Kitchen Secrets, Heston's Mission Impossible, Michel Roux Jnr on The Great British Food Revival. Even Jamie's Dream School. In years gone by, I would be lapping it up, but I am left a bit disillusioned by it all. Are the margins in top end catering really so poor that these talented chefs have to be making TV programmes of such dubious quality?

I like Raymond Blanc. He is genuine, funny and conveys his enthusiasm for food. But I don't get the point of the programme. He is hardly revealing Kitchen Secrets and the recipes he demonstrates are just too complicated to tempt many viewers to try them.

I think I still like Heston Blumenthal. His devotion and idiosyncrasy are unique and inspiring but he is the wrong person to be attempting to improve catering standards in the UK. He is too whacky to revive institutions such as the NHS and British Airways. In his previous series, he came across well only by contrast to the odious Ian Pegler, the Managing Director of Little Chef. In this current series, he is even more pie in the sky and I can't tell whether its the producers egging him on. Either way, the social agenda and demonisation of a bureaucratic antihero is hackneyed, patronising and irritating.

And yet another programme called "The Great British Something". I support TV programmes that educate consumers and promote sustainable food resources, but I felt last week's episode was clumsily done. For a start, it paired Michel Roux (on artisan bread) with the Hairy Bikers (on cauliflower). For me, Michel Roux's message was confusing. On the one hand, he was arguing that artisan bread has very few ingredients and is simple to make. On the other, he presented a loaf that contained flour, milk, butter, golden syrup and yeast and told us that there were "no short cuts".

The good news is that bread really is simple to make. What surprises many people is that no kneading is required and no bread machine either. Bread machines definitely fall into the category of impulse purchase that will take up space first on your countertop and later in your cupboard as the novelty wears off. All you need is a mixing bowl and a saucepan with a lid. I learned all of this from my friends Jon and Helen, who first introduced me to "No knead bread" in the New York Times. They have evolved their own recipe and process.

Making your own bread isn't going to save you a lot of money (before you even fire up the oven, a 1.5kg bag of flour is pushing £2). And although the method is very straightforward it does need several hours to rise so you can't really make it on the spur of the moment. But it is satisfying and a nice thing to do at the weekends. Left to rise for too long, the dough will smell boozy and taste yeasty - so don't leave it any more than 12 hours. I try to make the dough last thing on a Friday night, leave it to rise overnight, allow it to prove first thing in the morning and bake it for breakfast or brunch.

500g of Strong White Flour (plain flour just won't work as well)
1 teaspoon of dried yeast (about 7g)
1 teaspoon of salt
375g of luke warm water (use 75% water to flour as a rule of thumb).

1. Mix all of the ingredients using a silicone spatula for about a minute until you have a ball of dough.
2. Cover with cling film or a damp cloth and leave to rise for a minimum of 4 hours.
3. When the dough has doubled in size, fold it over a few times. Dust it in flour, cover and leave for a further 20-30 minutes.
4. Put the saucepan in the oven and heat it up to 220 Celsius.
5. Make sure the dough ball is coated in flour and put it into the saucepan. Put the lid on and bake for 15 minutes.
6. After 15 minutes, take the lid off. The dough should have risen but will still be white. Bake for a further 20 minutes to allow the crust to brown and caramelise slightly.
7. Leave to cool on a cooling rack.

Give it a go, take a photo and let me know how it goes. Make sure your saucepan is oven-proof. I melted the handles on one pot that was meant only for use on the stove! A cast iron Le Creuset pot is ideal!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Masterchef Series 7

A couple of weeks ago I was ready to jump on the bandwagon of food critics and bloggers panning the new format Masterchef. This is the first time that I have watched the series from the beginning. I tend to get more interested as the competition progresses, which is the opposite to X Factor, where I only find the early audition episodes entertaining.

I found the first two episodes incredibly irritating: poor editing and shameless plagiarism of X Factor (sob stories and family hugs) and The Apprentice (shots of the contestants marching). With hardly any focus on the food or cooking, little in the way of judging and over-egged dramatic pauses to create suspense, I came close to turning off the second episode. I'm sure that some of the contestants that were dropped could have done very well in later stages and I'm sure that there are still one or two there that should never have got this far.

Episode three (the egg invention test) continued to disappoint with more infuriating "fast forward" editing which prevented you from getting to know the contestants or see their food. The weird Masterchef obession with the Women's Institute continued as some nobody swanned around only to add nothing to the judging of the roast dinners.

Episode four was better. There was more focus on the food and the previous finalists were able to deliver interesting and added value comments about the food. Episode five (the Highland Games) was a good test of organisation, team work and mass catering but a little unfair to knock someone out on the basis of that their team lost. I don't think Sara (the Italian nurse) is going to be a finalist, but who could expect burly Scotsmen to choose seafood when there is beef and venison on offer.

Last night's episode was more compelling. We are now getting to the stage where you know the contestants' personalities better. There was still some irritating fast forward editing in the middle but this was a real test of food knowledge and inventiveness that brought some unexpected results. Alexis Gauthier brought some gravitas to the judging panel and did so with sincerity and French charm. I would have backed Alice to do something good with her favoured duck, but she was left with slug eyes after crying over her disappointing showing. Kennedy is clearly a good cook but was disappointed with his "plate of slop". What I like about him is that he doesn't go for the cliched sound bites that some of the earlier contestants proferred. He has good attitude and doesn't take himself too seriously.

Where do you stand on the new series of Masterchef?