Sunday, August 21, 2011

Belgian Food

So after two weeks in Belgium (missing my kitchen so much!), what do I have to say about Belgian food? Well, first of all, when you travel you will notice that locals always want you to try this and that but really, in Europe at least, local food is rarely as unique as the locals seem to think. No matter where you go there are pancakes, and potato pancakes, and after a lot of confusion due to the language difference you finally get it across that we actually have the exact same food at home. So I didn't bother with pancakes here, but was told I must try the fries. Why? Apparently they are something special and different. The truth - they are just fries. Belgium claims to be the real inventor of french fries, in Bruges there is even a musuem about it. But fried food is never really my cup of tea and these did not change my mind.

So of course everybody knows that Belgium is famous for chocolate. Certain cities especially have loads of little chocolate shops. But, as is to be expected with artisan, hand-made sweets, they are rather pricey. And there are no free samples. Of course, you don't even really need to try them, there is so much there that if you let yourself you would just make yourself sick. All you really need to do is step into a nice little chocolate shop and you will be overwhelmed by the wonderful smell of delicious chocolate. I did of course buy some as gifts and sample a little - it is good. If I had the money and the stomach capacity I would love to sample all of it, but I guess that will have to wait for another occasion.

Another properly famous item of Belgian gastronomy is the Belgian waffle, here in Mons known by the French word 'gaufre'. They are sold by street vendors and are really thick and sweet and cake-like. They coat them in sugar, which gets caramalised when they reheat them. Then if you like they cover them with sauce or cream. They are really good, but you can't even really make them yourself at home because those waffle-makers that you can buy do not make such thick waffles, they would never really turn out quite like this.

The last thing that deserves a mention is not strictly a Belgian speciality, I think they are sold in many places in this part of Europe. They are a type of cookie, and here at least are called 'speculoos'. On this side of the world  you often get a small individually wrapped cookie when you buy a cup of tea or coffee, and when I first had one they were so good I had to find out what they were! In English they are just called 'caramelised biscuits' but I looked up the brand name and found that they are speculoos, like gingerbread but with different spices and darker sugar. They are so yummy that I even looked up recipes and from there was born my recipe for Christmas cookies, which I am going to share today because they don't just have to be for Christmas and they are really yummy! Here you can get a spread of the same flavour, I haven't tried it yet but if it's good I'm sure it will get eaten really quickly!

Spiced Christmas Cookies

150 grams butter
1 egg
300 grams dark brown sugar
500 grams plain flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and grease or line a cookie tray.

As usual for cookies, cream the butter and sugar together as well as you can, then mix in the eggs and the spices. The flour must be added gradually, until it is quite a solid dough and you are having to knead it to mix more in. At this point it is time to turn your dough out onto a floured surface. Keep on kneading the flour in until it has all been incorporated, and the dough should be stiff and shiny.

Roll your dough out until it is about 5 mm thick and cut it into shapes (you could just cut rectangles if you have no cutters or if it is not Christmas time!). Now my recipe says to bake for 15 minutes but I'm not really sure how accurate that is. I would probably just go with it and if the first batch is overdone then cook the next for a shorter time but these should be quite solid and hard. After a day or two they will soften. And of course if these are for Christmas or some other occasion you may at this point want a recipe for the icing, like the one that I used in the image below!

Royal Icing

This is what you need to use to get shiny hard icing for decorating. It is very simple.

1 egg white
250 grams icing sugar

Simply sift the sugar over the egg white and mix it into a thick paste. It will be white and takes food colouring really well, giving you nice bright colour. It spreads and pipes easily and dries very quickly to give a shiny surface. It is very sweet though!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Chocolate Brownies!

Now this is the second time that I am baking this week, but it is OK, I am not really breaking the once-a-week baking rule because I am actually about to go to Belgium for two weeks where I will have no oven and baking gear. So I am making up for it in advance with a treat that I often used to make on the weekend. Chocolate brownies are hugely varied and I actually have several very different recipes for them but these are the classic ones. The recipe originally came out of the old Cadbury's Cookbook that I had at home, which was full of amazing recipes. I really must find that cookbook when I visit home. So these brownies are amazing in that they have no chocolate, only cocoa, but you would never know that to taste them. I get the feeling though that I have actually altered this recipe at some point, for one I think it originally used far less cocoa than I use, and maybe less eggs too. Of course this recipe is very adaptable, so while I have other recipes for different types of brownie if you want you can actually just take this one and add, say, melted chocolate to make it richer, or chunks of chocolate of different varieties, or leave out the cocoa and melt white chocolate into the mixture. Or leave out all chocolate, use brown sugar and make blondies. It is amazingly fast to make as well, there will be brownies ready in under an hour. So let's cut to the chase and just get on with the recipe.


3 eggs
1 1/2 cups (320 grams) white sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
1/2 cup (60 grams) cocoa
180 grams melted butter
3/4 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

First of course you need to preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and grease your tin - I use a tin that is sort of like a swiss roll tin but a little deeper - it's about 20 by 30 cm and maybe 2 cm deep or so. A square cake tin with sides of 20 to 25 cm will do, or anything that you have and depending on the size you will have flat crispy brownie or fatter, softer brownie.

The mixing of this brownie is quite interesting, it doesn't use the creaming method. You can cream it though, just as normal you could begin with the butter (not melted though) and cream in the sugar, then add the eggs, then the dry ingredients. The mixture will have more air and seem larger and fluffier. But that is not how this recipe is and the original way is good and really easy.

So what you do is you start with the eggs in a large bowl and give them a quick whisk, you add the sugar and vanilla and beat that in as well as you can - this recipe is easily done by hand, no need for an electric mixer here. Sift in the cocoa and beat that in, then the melted butter and beat that in too. Finally sift in the flour and baking powder. If you are adding any melted chocolate or chunks of chocolate now is the time to do it.

Pour your mixture into the prepared tin (if you can for a moment stop eating it that is, because it's a really amazingly sweet and chocolatey mixture). Bake for half an hour to 50 minutes (depends how you like your brownie) - a skewer should come out clean. Now either eat while warm and gooey or let it get cold, it's good no matter what. Have with a glass of milk maybe. A cafe near to where I lived once used to heat up the slices of brownie and serve them with plain yoghurt, it was really good.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Apricot Cookies

The other week I ran into a friend, who introduced me to his friend, who turned out to also love baking and cooking! It was very exciting and we talked food, and now I have stolen his idea. He told me that he makes apricot and white chocolate cookies so here is my own version. Apricots are after all one of my favourite fruits, if I get my hands on a load of fresh ones I would eat them till I'm ill! These cookies are made with dried apricots though. My weekly baking has come a day early this week because I had technicians at work that needed buttering up, and I think cookies will help us all to get through Thursday a little easier. I took my usual chocolate chip cookie recipe and simply altered it slightly. For instance, apricots are very sweet so I decreased the sugar, and I stewed the apricots a little so to make up for the extra water I left out the egg. Then I added loads of vanilla. The result was a cookie dough that had a really amazing texture, perfect for rolling into balls, not too sticky or crumbly at all. I even managed not to begin eating them last night, they were all saved for work, because instead a lovely friend brought me tim-tams! So we spent the evening sewing and then relaxed with hot chocolate and tim-tams. I had forgotten how amazingly delicous they were - you just don't get anything that comes anywhere near comparing to them here in Ireland. I must be careful when I go back to NZ to not get fat because there is so much good food there!

However, now I am off topic so will get straight back to it for the recipe:

Apricot and White Chocolate Cookies

100 grams dried apricots
125 grams butter
1/2 cup white sugar (125 grams)
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
2 cups plain flour (300 grams)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
100 grams white chocolate

To begin with you need to stew your apricots slightly, so chop them up and place them in a small pot with 1/4 cup (60 mL) water. Get them boiling and simmer gently for awhile, then if you have a stick-blender give them a quick whiz. If you don't, just leave them as they are, which is what I did. Now the next thing is you should really let them to cool a bit or they will melt your butter.

While the apricots are cooling preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius, grease a baking tray, and then cream together your butter and sugar. Of course, cookies will generally turn out OK no matter how you mix them so if you have no electric beater and cannot be bothered beating them so much by hand just mix as much as you can, so long as the butter is all mixed into the sugar.

Next you will add your apricots and vanilla essence to your butter mixture and give it a good stir, or a quick beat with the electric mixer. Then sift in your flour, baking powder and salt. If you have baking soda you could use half a teaspoon of that instead, it will make the biscuits spread more and give them a more golden colour and crispy texture. I had none. Now at this point you want to mix with a spoon because the beater will make a mess of flour everywhere. Just keep on mixing until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is really good and dough-like.

Lastly, it is time to add the chocolate. Chop it up to whatever sort of size you like, or use chips or buttons or something. Tip it into the mixture and mix well with your hands or a spoon. You should now have a soft but firm mixture (that is such an oxymoron but seriously, that is how it should be). Roll your mixture into small balls and press down slightly onto your greased tray. For me this mixture made 25 cookies! Bake each batch for 10 or 12 minutes and then enjoy!!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Stuffed Vegetables

So in an attempt to begin writing more about healthy food, and in doing so eat healthy food because I have not been eating so well today, I went back to a recipe that I first tried a few months ago when making arabic mezze for friends. After living in Abu Dhabi for a few months and enjoying the food there I was really missing such things so decided to make a whole lot of it myself, branch out from the usual hummus and carrots. One of the hits and my favourites of the night was peppers stuffed with a sweet spicy rice mixture. So last night I hunted through the cupboards and threw together as similar a dish as possible, and below I have given both the real recipe and my adaptation. I used brown rice as it is far better than the processed variety, and eggplant even though I'm still not sure that I really like it that much. I just eat it anyway. Incidentaly, it turns out that eggplant is not really a vegetable at all, it is more like a fruit, and classed as a berry, and related to deadly nightshade.

Filfil Rumi Mahsi - Arabic Stuffed Peppers

6 green bell peppers
100 grams pine nuts
2 large onions, chopped
1 1/4 cups long grain rice
Olive oil
1/2 cup sultanas
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped mint (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar

Heat the oil in a large pan and lightly fry the pine nuts and chopped onions. Then add the rice and stir for about 5 minutes. Then add the sultanas, a bit of salt and pepper and the sugar and on top of this pour about 2 cups of water (enough that it is about twice the depth of the rice and stuff). Now it must simmer until the water is absorbed.

When the water is absorbed stir in the lemon juice, mint and spices. I have never made this recipe using mint, but maybe it is good. It is good without it too though. Remove the pan from the heat and cover with a lid or tinfoil and just leave it until any last bits of liquid have been absorbed. Then leave it to cool right down.

Now you are ready to stuff your peppers (or whatever it is you are stuffing, aubergines and courgettes are also good). For peppers though, you must cut the top of and carefully take out the center with the seeds. Stuff each pepper with the rice mixture, loosely because if you pack it too tightly they will probably split in the oven. Place the top on the peppers and place them in an oven tray. Sprinkle the  peppers with salt and sugar if you want (I did not) and rub the peppers with a little oil.

Bake in the oven until they are tender. You will probably find that you have far too much rice for 6 peppers, I know that I did. It is yummy though so either stuff more peppers or just eat it!

This evening I did not quite make this, I adapted it somewhat to suit what I had in the cupboard. I stuffed aubergines (or eggplants as I would call them) and I used brown rice. I left out the onion because I had none and am not supposed to eat it anyway. Also I had no pine nuts so I used some almond flakes instead, and not an entire cup full because I did not have that much. I cut the eggplants in half lengthways and carefully took out the flesh from the middle, leaving nearly a centimetre thickness on the skin. I chopped the removed flesh up small and fried it up with the almonds and rice. As usual I did not use mint. So you see you can pretty much adapt this as you like, and also in the past I have made a similar dish with couscous or bulgar wheat.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Savoury Cheese Biscuits

So I have just moved apartment and had to bake something in order to try out the new oven. It seems to be a good one. And in order to not break the once-a-week baking wall I decided to do something savoury, because the rule really only applies to sweet things. But that is really just a huge excuse, it's not like these biscuits were healthy. Sure they have no sugar, but they do have a huge amoung of butter and cheese. So they should still be a sometimes-food and really are not to be eaten as easily as crackers. Of course they are actually really delicious and easy to eat so it's really hard to remember to stop eating them. Especially if there is a nice salsa to dip them in. Or if you just feel like eating. When I was much younger and taking over the cooking of Christmas dinner I had a Christmas themed cookbook and one of the snacks were cheese biscuits shaped like stars. They were a big hit, but this is not that recipe. That recipe is somewhere in NZ, hopefully in storage but maybe lost forever. Instead I had a look on google and in some other recipe books and put this one together, and then just fiddled with it until the consistency was right. I have noticed though that I am doing a huge amount of baking lately, and should probably be cooking more healthy food to write about because I do like to encourage people to eat vegetables. So I will work on that but I just have such a love of baking, I can't seem to stop!

Cheese Biscuits
(this is a really simple recipe by the way)

200 grams grated cheddar cheese
300 grams (2 cups) plain flour
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
150 grams butter
2 egg yolks

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and have a biscuit tray ready. In a large bowl mix the dry ingredients with the cheese, then chop the butter into cubes and rub into the mixture until it is like bread crumbs. You may need a little more flour, two cups is roughly 300 grams but it depends sometimes. If the mixture is already like dough after the butter then you need more flour. It should be crumbly.

Now in order to make the mixture into a dough add the egg yolks and mix until it everything comes together nicely. If it seems too dry or crumbly you can of course add a little milk and if it is too wet add a little more flour. Then you need to sprinkle flour on  your nice clean bench so that you can roll the dough out, to about 5 mm thick. Then cut it into rectangles or use a cookie cutter to make shapes (like stars, or even better starfish).

Place your biscuits on a tray and bake for 15 minutes. This recipe should make loads, I think I made three and a half trays of biscuits, though perhaps not as many fit as usual due to the star shape. They were devoured pretty promptly, so I guess they must have been pretty good.