Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Sound of Silence


I am marking exams at the Ballymaloe Cookery School this morning. The students are doing their end of term practical cooking exams. The tone is hushed and the atmosphere concentrated. The kitchens are busy but quiet. Just the sound of cooking. This is a cooking school, it is exam day and the students are cooking on their own. The sounds coming from the kitchen are slightly different to those from a restaurant kitchen. In the restaurant kitchen, every day is exam day.
 I love a quiet kitchen, no unnecessary chatter, no raised voices, no abusive language. The gentle sounds of herbs being chopped, steel on wood, egg whites being whisked, metal on metal, meat and fish gently grilling, fat on heat and so on, it is all music to my ears.
There is a particular type of silence that descends on a well-organised kitchen. It is full of noiseless little messages. The unspoken nod, in the direction of a saucepan that is about to boil over, the eye-catching glance from one cook to the other whose butter is about to burn, the raised eyebrow towards a sink that might overflow. This quietness is only possible in a kitchen where everyone works as a team. Everyone cares about the food that the others are cooking. The aim is the same for all, great food for the guests in the dining room. All members of the team have a vested interest.  In a busy and successful kitchen, no man is an island.
Of course there is chat and communication, but it is gentle and the gossip, the jokes and raucous fun are reserved for tea breaks or mealtime. That chat and fun is essential, because the pressure is there all of the time. Better to let off steam and have a laugh over a cup of tea than over the hot stove.
There are different types of kitchen silence or quietness. The quietness of a calm and organised service which of course can't be a voiceless, but comes with a soft hum like that of a fine barge cutting through the still water of a  canal. The quietness that the execution of certain dishes demands. Try chatting  while you score the puff pastry on a gateau pithiviers with its distinctive curved markings. You will most likely end up with an abstract pattern rather than the desired cartwheel effect.
There is the breathless silence necessary for other dishes, like delicately folding whisked egg whites into a soufflé or dressing a salad of tender leaves.  Then there is the silent pounding and pumping of blood on temples as the soufflé or pithiviers leaves the oven. Pressure, glorious noiseless pressure. I love it. If I sound miserable and anti-social, well I am not. I love kitchens and have found some of my happiest moments in them, a true feeling of a sense of purpose, a team thrill, a confidence boosting communal effort where I have watched the timid grow confident, the shy grow gregarious, the directionless grow focused.
The deafening silence coming from the kitchens here this morning is a glorious symphony and good luck to all. 

Some of the delicious results,

Quite Beautiful.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Here is a  photo of the biscuits mentioned below. Have fun with these and the lemon icing in the recipe makes all the difference.

Winter wonderland

Winter present and past…

This morning the countryside here is a classic picture postcard winter scene. The grass is frozen and crisp, the branches in the hedgerows look like fabulous and extravagant sparkling broaches from a smart Parisian jeweller, the sky is a soft shade of baby blue and even the long streams of wash from passing jets look like they are there as a decoration. The whole scene is a dazzling twinkling light show under the bright sunshine.
I have been out to feed the chickens and pigeons, and the wild birds have also received their ration. They were all ravenous and seemed especially grateful.
I love the sound and feel of the crunchy frosted grass under foot. It is so evocative and reminds me of winters long past. 
I am going out to an early Christmas dinner this evening and am bringing a tin of homemade biscuits as a gift.   These little delights will keep for several days in a tin or box, so while it is definitely still too early to make them to present on Christmas day, you can advise the hopefully grateful recipient to eat them while they are at there best and not to save them for too long. You could happily make these on the 23rd to gift on the 25th. Decorate these with as many sparkly and vulgar bits as you wish. It is nearly Christmas after all.

Christmas Chocolate Biscuits

8 oz / 225g Flour
1 ¼ oz / 35g cocoa powder
1-teaspoon baking powder
5 oz  / 140g butter
4 ½ oz  / 125g caster sugar
1-tablespoon vegetable oil
1-teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg

Place the butter, oil and caster sugar in the bowl of a mixer and cream together with the paddle fitting until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and continue to beat until well blended and smooth. Sieve the flour, cocoa and baking powder on to the mixture in the bowl and blend in until the mixture comes together. Do not over mix. Chill the mixture for 30 minutes if it feels a little soft.

Pre heat the oven to 350f / 180c.

Roll out the mixture about ¼ in / 5mm thick, using a little flour to prevent it from sticking. Alternatively, roll between sheets of parchment paper. Cut out the biscuits with the cutter of choice and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Leave a little space between the biscuits as they swell slightly.
Cook in the pre-heated oven for approx 8 minutes. They will feel gently set to the touch and will crisp up as they cool. Place the tray on a wire rack and allow the biscuits to cool, still on the parchment paper. Serve dusted with a little icing sugar or caster sugar or cocoa powder or ice with the icing suggested below.

Lemon Glace icing

110g / 4oz Icing sugar
Zest of 1 Lemon and approx 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Sieve the icing sugar in to a bowl. With a wooden spoon, carefully, blend in the lemon zest and enough juice to make a spread able icing. Beat until smooth and glossy. The consistency will be that of thick cream

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More oranges......

Salad of Oranges, Dates and Mint





Sorry, but I cant resist the great oranges we are getting at the moment so heres another recipe using them....


This is a lovely refreshing salad which I like to serve when the new season oranges and dates arrive in December. I scramble around in the garden trying to find a few surviving mint leaves to freshen it up. If the mint has all been scorched by the early frosts, I substitute it with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. This dish can be served on its own with perhaps a little yoghurt and I also like to serve it with my Turkish yoghurt and Lemon cake.

Serves 4-6

5 oranges
12 dates
1 tablespoon of  mint leaves
1 tablespoon caster sugar
2 tablespoons orange flower water
2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds, optional

Remove the zest from one of the oranges with a fine grater or a micro plane. Juice the zested orange. With a sharp knife, remove the skin and pith from the remaining oranges. Slice or segment the oranges and add to the juice and zest with the caster sugar. Halve the dates lengthways, remove the stones and add to the oranges.   Sprinkle on the orange flower water. Chop the mint leaves and gently mix all of the ingredients together, being careful not to break up the orange pieces. If using the pomegranate, add now. Cover and chill before serving.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Green and Black…..

What is green and black and hairy? No, not a ruck in last saturday nights match at Landsdown Road in Dublin, but in this case the almost rugby ball shaped fruit, known as the kiwi. Wasn’t the match terrific though, with our boys putting in a stirring if not a winning performance. What a sporting spectacle and in the unlikely event of Brian O Driscoll ever deciding to make the kitchen, rather that the rugby pitch his chosen place of work, well he certainly has the hands to wield a knife successfully. Glorious skills, but wow those kiwi guys know a thing or two about the odd shaped ball.
Back to the reason for this post, the unfashionable and maligned kiwi fruit.
The little brown furry fellow, suffered enormously as a result of being a favourite garnish of chefs during the nouvelle cuisine movement in France and elsewhere during the 1980s. It ended up in a lot of inappropriate places, especially when combined with  savoury dishes. Monkfish and kiwi was the inspired combination of one gastronaut during that rather misguided period. Eek! The bad taste associated with it still lingers, to the point where many chefs will not consider having it in their kitchens at all. This is a pity, because in the dessert kitchen, it really has a lot to offer. Tangy and flavoursome when ripe and firm, the fruit is truly delicious. Simply peeled, sliced and lightly sprinkled with sugar, it makes an instant and easy fruit salad. Peeled, coarsely crushed and folded through a little whipped cream, you have an almost instant fool. Coarsely crushed again, and lightened with sugar syrup and a splash of orange juice, it becomes a wonderful sauce for a hot orange soufflé or a lemon mousse.  It pairs brilliantly with mango, banana, strawberry and passion fruit. It has the ideal amount of acidity and flavour to make a great sorbet.
The recipe I am giving you here combines it with orange to make a light and refreshing salad. Eat this vitamin c packed dish on its own, with a yoghurt or caramel  ice cream or just a drizzle of cream. A thin, light buttery biscuit would also be a fine accompaniment.

Kiwi Fruit and Orange Salad

5 oranges
4 kiwi fruit
100g sugar
125ml water

With a sharp swivel top vegetable peeler, remove the zest from one of the oranges in long strips, working from the top of the orange to the bottom. Cut the strips into long and fine julienne strips. Place in a saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil. Remove the strips, refresh in cold water and repeat the process twice more.
Place the three times blanched and refreshed julienne strips in a small saucepan with the syrup, and simmer gently for about 15 minutes, or until the julienne looks translucent. Drain the strips in a sieve. Allow the syrup to cool.
With a sharp knife, peel the oranges removing all the skin and pith. Slice the peeled oranges into neat slices or segment carefully. Place in a wide and shallow bowl. Peel the
Kiwi fruit, being careful to retain the round and barrel like shape of the fruit. Slice the kiwi into neat slices or cut from top to bottom into wedges. I often mix slices and wedges to enliven the appearance of the salad. Add the kiwi to the oranges and pour over the cold syrup. Shake the bowl to encourage the ingredients to mix. Allow to macerate for 30 minutes. Sprinkle on the orange julienne just before serving.    

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Bulls eye...

There are some flavours, that when combined are just spot on. No argument. Nail on the head, bulls eye and so on.
Red plums and star anise are one of those combinations. They wrap around each other like the very best of friends.
Star Anise is a fabulous little spice, beautiful to look, highly aromatic and with a rich and exotic flavour. Like with a lot of the best things, restraint will reward you. If you use too much of it, you will very quickly end up with something that tastes of a cheap scented candle and smells of a particularly nasty pot pouri. One of these star shaped beauties is all that is needed here. Putting a second one in will not make it better, in fact it will just make the dish smell and taste of the aforementioned noxious items.
I have always been amazed, at how plums that are rock hard and almost inedible when purchasing, are transformed into something delicious after poaching in a syrup.
Up to this point, I have always poached plums in a syrup but last night I decided to bake them, hence no need to use any water. This is good, very good. The flavour is considerably more intense and the syrupy juices richer in colour and consistency. I ate them whilst still warm with cold softly whipped cream and a splash of grappa and this morning I had them icy cold with yoghurt for breakfast .
The fun is just beginning with these boys and I am going to make another batch this weekend. I feel a plum fool or an ice cream coming on. More of that later.

This recipe will serve 6 people generously.

The plums will keep perfectly in the fridge for several days.

Preheat oven to 190c / 375f / gas 5

900g plums
225g sugar
1 lemon
1 star anise

Place the plums in a baking dish that they fit into snugly . Add the sugar. With a swivel peeler, peel long thin strips off the lemon rind, being careful to avoid the bitter white pith. Add to the dish with the juice of the lemon. Bury the star anise in the sugar. Cover the dish as tightly as you can with tin foil. The dish should be completely sealed so that no steam escapes while the plums are cooking. Place in the oven and cook for 50 minutes. Test to see that the plums are tender and if so remove from the oven. They should be starting to collapse and sitting in a pool of richly coloured syrup. Pop them back in the oven for a few more minutes if they are still hard.
Serve warm or chilled with plenty of the plum syrup.

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