27 December 2010

End of the (back)track

A few other edibles we managed to consume over the last few days.

Christmas & Boxing Days saw us quaffing fresh-squeezed OJ & bubbly and scoffing German pancake, really a Yorkshire pudding served with citrus juice and icing sugar. I'll include the Colorado Cache recipe at the end of this post. Also featured was crispy Oscar Mayer bacon, c/o the Tramuntana supermarket we stopped at in La Jonquera on our way to Laroque from Girona airport.

On Boxing Day afternoon (leftovers today), we got out the Feuerzangenbowle Cheri and Hans-Jörg gave us years ago. Photo shows Michael pouring flaming rum — would have shown up better at night — over a sugar cone into a mixture of heated red wine, fresh orange juice, and cinnamon. With this we indulged in two versions of Myrna's soused Camembert, a Brillat Savarin and a Chaource, both baked with white wine.

We had many good wines over the holidays, but perhaps the best was this bottle we purchased on a visit to the Haut Gléon winery about ten years ago. One more still resides in Michael's cave — you'll have to get out here, Kate, before it disappears. Some of the older wines have, disappointingly, already passed their peaks.

Here's something past its peak that we didn't actually consume, despite my generally cavalier attitude to expiration dates. I had roasted beetroot to make borscht with red cabbage and red onion. However . . . we were keeping surplus food that wouldn't fit in the fridge on our balcony. I kept delaying soup production, with the result that a splendid mold colony appeared, converting the beets to dominoes.
Note the spiky growth and the solitary red dot in lower left corner. I'm sure Alexander Fleming could have done something significant with this.

Now, the incredibly easy recipe for German pancakes — about as German as English muffins are English. To make it even easier, I simply melt all the butter in the baking pan and pour the requisite amount into the batter. Forget melted butter when serving: orange & lemon sections and powdered sugar are all you need.

Baked German Pancake
By The Denver Post
Posted: 08/13/2008

From "Colorado Cache," serves 4.
3 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablspoons butter, softened
Using a wire whisk or fork, beat eggs until blended. Sift flour, measure and sift again with salt. Add flour mixture to beaten eggs in four additions, beating after each addition just until mixture is smooth. Add milk in two additions, beating slightly after each. Lightly beat in melted butter.
Using the softened butter, grease bottom and sides of a 9- or 10-inch oven-proof skillet. Pour batter into skillet and bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Slip onto a heated platter and serve immediately.
Traditionally served with melted butter, a squeeze of lemon and a dusting of powdered sugar.

Backtracking through Christmas (4)

Finally, the food and drink.

On the 23rd we had our neighbors Jean and Annie over for "un petit verre," accompanied by foie gras & toasted fig bread, plus various goodies from Picard. Annie has recently lost 15 kilos, so we made sure to have some raw vegetables (and Picard's wonderful ceviche canapés, each served with its own tube of either a mango or basil infusion) to help with her régime.

That evening we drank the very good bottle of local red wine they had brought us, opened with Michael's new tire-bouchon:

The next day, Christmas Eve, Michael set out the wines to accompany our feasting over the holiday. . . .

. . . . while I got River Café's chocolate/nut/cranberry/Grand Marnier extravaganza ready to go into the oven. I promise my hands are clean. We didn't take snaps of the finished product: it's decadently rich but not particularly photogenic unless garnished, which I didn't bother with.

Chrismas Eve table

First course: pan-fried foie gras with a pear/onion/honey sauce

Main course: bouillabaisse with croutons and rouille

Christmas Eve is always home-cooked; on Xmas Day we
either go out to a restaurant or rely on traiteurs/Picard.
This year it was Picard.

Christmas Eve foie gras and Christmas Day oysters
are Michael's province. Oysters this year were grilled
in a butter/garlic/parmesan/herb/lemon sauce
c/o Emeril Lagasse

Our female duckling, stuffed with cèpes and truffles.
Served with Picard's creamed leeks
& écrasées de pommes de terre à la forestière, girolles,
asparagus, and white wine gravy.

No wonder my jeans are feeling distinctly tighter.

Backtracking through Christmas (3)

Now for some photos of 7 chemin du Vilar, decked out for Christmas. We should have cut some greenery from our bushes when holly turned out to be overpriced, but . . . I didn't realize how bare the mantel looks until I saw the photographs.

Our Chamaecyparis (lawsoniana Pembury blue) from
Jardiland, soon to be planted out in the yard

This year's master stroke: Michael thought of adding
a touch of the exotic by hanging a garland
on this camel cover

Backtracking through our French Christmas (2)

I would love to claim that the photos below were taken chez Welland, but no, they're from the December Saveurs, a foodie magazine, and the brochure we were given at the Perpignan shop where Michael bought a replacement corkscrew and I picked up a dozen matte red metallic ornaments for our small Christmas tree.

The theme of the spécial fêtes issue of Saveurs was "Il était une fois . . ." -- "once upon a time." Aspirational, as it turns out, not inspirational — though I did scatter some tree ornaments on the table as a centerpiece.

So . . . joyeux Noël, French-style:

Backtracking through our French Christmas (1)

I'll start with a couple of other excursions, one to Olivier Bajard, the chocolatier who has a shop and school outside Perpignan, and the other into the city proper.

Many temptations at Monsieur Bajard's, but we limited ourselves to a small box of chocolates and a jar of hazelnut caramel sauce. Next Christmas, after being seduced by the candied orange inside Heston Blumenthal's pudding, we'll take a closer look at all the glacéed fruits. I've always figured they'd be soft and too sweet rather than sticky, chewy, and flavorful like HB's.

Perpignan disappoints on a smaller scale than Oxford Street when it comes to municipal decorations, but this tree in the window of the VIP restaurant (fully booked, so we couldn't eat there -- now have their card, so next time we'll plan in advance) was worthy of Selfridge's.

Since there was no room at the inn -- very Christmassy -- we made a beeline for our favorite Perpignan restaurant, YY. Michael had scallops on a pumpkin mousse and I had hake with risotto.

Le Plaisir, very good red from Mas Amiel; picked up another bottle
later at new Monoprix next to Galeries Lafayette

For almost ten years I've been looking for the thick glass slabs, like ice, on which I was served a selection of sorbets at a restaurant in Collioure. YY's presentation isn't quite as dramatic, but would be far easier to duplicate. Flavors are mango, lemon, and blood orange.

Favorite photos from friends and family





26 December 2010

Clever us

For once my buying on impulse paid off. We feasted yesterday on this WONDERFUL dessert, the best Christmas pudding either of us has ever eaten — and, believe me, Michael especially has done a lot of sampling in his time. All we had to do was whip up a little hard sauce, with Armagnac added this year to the butter and confectioner's sugar, and then dig into the moist but not stodgy pudding to that candied orange center. Superb! And Michael didn't suffer an allergic reaction to the walnuts I noticed were listed as an ingredient right before serving up.

I haven't used my copper pudding mold in years and, as long as Waitrose keeps up an annual supply of this holiday delicacy, I never will again. To keep my Heston idolatry in perspective, however, it must be noted that, according to the Guardian, "the Christmas pud that won this year's Which? taste test comes from Lidl. And it costs £2.99."

Telegraph, 28 November 2010:

Heston Blumenthal Christmas pudding on sale on eBay

A sell-out Christmas pudding by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal is being sold on eBay where it has attracted bids of at least £77

Heston Blumenthal's orange Christmas pudding
Heston Blumenthal's orange Christmas pudding is up for sale on eBay

Demand for the £13.99 Waitrose Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding is so high the supermarket has almost run out and the must-have dish is now being re-sold on the internet.

One eBay user is offering to sell a single Blumenthal pudding with a delivery fee of £6 to anywhere in the United Kingdom. With eight days of the auction left to run, 11 bids had been submitted last night, ranging up to £77.

The seller, in Bempton, East Yorkshire, states on the auction's description page: "Christmas dinner is usually a time for tradition. But when tucking in to the turkey, stuffing and pud this year, you may need to prepare yourself for an unusual surprise.

"As the name suggests, it looks like the puddings we are all used to, but cut it open to reveal a whole candied orange inside."

Unlike Blumenthal's more exotic restaurant creations, such as eggs and bacon ice cream, the pudding is easy to prepare in the microwave.


Guardian, 28 November 2010:

The new black market for Christmas puds

A rare Heston Blumenthal Christmas pudding for Waitrose is open for bids on eBay, but it's not the only supermarket Christmas fare that's whetting gastronomes' appetites

Jon Henley

Every year there's something, isn't there? A decade ago it was Delia, boldly introducing the nation, Walter Raleigh-like, to the notion of fresh cranberries in a sauce we could make ourselves rather than buy in a jar. Sales of the acidic dark-red fruit promptly trebled, triggering shortages up and down the land.

Five years later, it was Nigella. She praised goose fat as essential for perfect roast potatoes. A fortnight afterwards, Tesco and Waitrose said sales had doubled, while Sainsbury's and Asda reported mere 70% spikes.

Logically, as we slide ever further down the celebrity-endorsed slope, this time around it's not an ingredient but a product. "Waitrose Heston Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding V/Rare", states the description on eBay. "The must-have pudding for 2011. Sold out in 99.9% of stores. In original sealed box. Time left: 9 days." As G2 went to press, the bidding stood at £77.

Admittedly, this prince among puddings serves 10-12 people. And it is, if we believe its creator, "very special ... As it cooks, the essential oils from the orange peel infuse the nuts and fruit from the inside out." But £77, you'll agree, is a lot to pay for something that retailed at £13.99 (already a pretty penny to pay for a pud).

"We've sold tens of thousands," says the supermarket, adding that while there were "around 2,000" in stores at the start of the weekend, "they're being snapped up very quickly. We always thought it would do well; it's a modern twist on an old favourite, from one of our food ambassadors. But even we have been slightly surprised."

(Delia, Waitrose's other "food ambassador", is doing all right too. Her £10 DIY Christmas cake kit – "perfect for first-time bakers who don't want a cupboard full of half-used jars, and enjoy baking but don't have the time" – is currently flying off the shelf every seven seconds. It can only be days before it shows up on eBay too – maybe for £26, which is what the ingredients would cost individually.)

The moral of all this, of course, is that we really, really care about our Christmas din-dins. Also, some of us are gullible enough to swallow anything. If you're in the former category but not the latter, a tip: the Christmas pud that won this year's Which? taste test comes from Lidl. And it costs £2.99.


And now a recipe, also from the Telegraph, a less than successful attempt to recreate the Fat Duck chef's magic (video on link well worth watching, but Rose Prince's candied orange isn't a patch on Heston's; no wonder her daughter rejected it): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/8155014/How-to-make-Hestons-must-have-Christmas-pudding.html

Distraught shoppers, unable to buy Heston’s plum pudding with its notorious hidden orange, take heart. Waitrose may have sold all 25,000 of their quirky Christmas dessert, made famous by their TV ad, but the good news is that you can still have one. The bad news is that you have to make it yourself. But remain calm – it’s only a plum pudding with a candied orange inside.

Reaching for bowl and scales, I decided to give it a try. I used a favourite pudding recipe then hunted down instructions for whole candied oranges. Candying fruit is the alchemy of southern European confisseries; my take was to boil the orange in a spiced syrup for 1 hours, cool on a rack then boil for another 30 minutes. By the end I had a satisfyingly soft, sticky orb. I squished it into the middle of the raw pudding mix in the basin then steamed the whole thing for 7 hours.

The moment came to see if it had worked – the pudding came out firm and sticky. I cut a wedge and there was the orange, peeping out from its hiding place. Success – but the taste? I’d like to say this was the best reinvention of the pudding since we stopped adding minced beef or mutton, but it tasted like good old Christmas pudding, with this slightly annoying orange hanging around in the middle.

“I like it, but do you have to put the orange in?” said my daughter. Quite so. Dedicated followers of fashion will love the impact of this pudding. Me? I’d like to go back to a time when Heston meant services and a nice greasy breakfast and the only thing hidden inside a Christmas pudding would be pocket money…

Hidden orange pudding

Serves 10 – have ready a buttered 1 litre/2 pint pudding basin, baking paper, foil and string

Preparation time – 2 days

For the candied orange:

1 orange
1 litre of water
1 kg white sugar
½ cinnamon stick
1 tbsp marmalade

For the pudding:

550 mixed dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, currants and mixed peel)
1 grated carrot
1 grated Bramley apple
100ml ale
3 eggs
1 tbsp black treacle
115g dark brown sugar
115g plain flour (sifted)
1 ½ tsp mixed spice
115 g ground almonds
115g suet

To candy the orange, pierce it several times with a skewer then boil it in the water for 30 minutes to soften. Remove from the water, add the sugar, cinnamon and marmalade and bring to the boil. Add back the orange and cook over a medium heat for about 45 minutes. Cover with a lid for part of the time so the orange cooks evenly. Remove it from the syrup. Dry it overnight on a rack then give it a second 30 minute boiling the following day. Remove and allow it to dry again; the orange is now ready to use.

To make the pudding, put the fruit, carrot and apple in a large mixing bowl and leave to steep for 20 minutes. Add the eggs, black treacle and sugar and mix well. Add the flour,spice, ground almonds and suet and mix well again. Make sure there are no clods of dry flour.

Butter the pudding basin, and half fill with pudding mixture. Place the candied orange in the centre of the bowl and add the remaining pudding mixture so it is buried inside. Cover with a disc of baking paper, then take a large sheet of each baking paper and foil. Fold in half then make a pleat. Place the sheet over the bowl and secure with string.

Place in a pan to steam with 4 cm depth of simmering water. Cover and steam for 7 hours. You can then store the pudding for several weeks – before steaming again for 3 hours for the Christmas meal. Serve with buttercream flavoured with Grand Marnier, or clotted cream.

23 December 2010

Season's greetings

My favorite kind of post: a simple copy-and-paste, this time from the Guardian's Saturday poem series. The verse below, by Connie Bensley, appeared in the Review section on 11 December 2010.

Mr and Mrs R and the Christmas Card List

    Shall I cross them off?

    It's twenty years since we last met.

    Of course Mr R and I once thought
    we were made for each other –

    Ah, that heart-stopping moment
    by the kitchen sink, when he took off

    his spectacles and fiercely kissed me.
    But all that lasted less than a week

    And what I recall more vividly
    Is Mrs R's good advice:

    Always plunge your lemons in hot water

    before you squeeze them.

    One more year perhaps.

    From The Twelve Poems of Christmas: Volume Two, selected and introduced by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Candlestick Press RRP £4.95

19 December 2010

Border crossing

I never saw Morons from Outer Space, but I do remember the line that featured in ads for the movie: "they came, they saw, they did a little shopping." Sort of like me in Spain on Tuesday, but with more emphasis on the shopping.

We crossed the Pyrenees this time in order to revisit La Bisbal d'Empordà, a town we had discovered via Jean-François and Brigitte Bernard a couple of years ago. We had two goals: (1) to pick up some blue dishes so that we could finally discard the olive pattern from Auchan that had lasted far longer than I'd originally hoped and (2) treat ourselves to a full-sized trillo panel (explanation later) as 2010's sole Christmas present chez Welland.

Bisbal is filled with tourist shops selling cheap pottery, but there is one store that stands out above the rest, far better (better = quality + affordability) than any we've found nearby in France, too. We made a beeline for "El Rissec de Valls i Llenas—Ceràmiques d'Artesania" on the main drag. We were beginning to think the whole town was closed for some mysterious reason, having arrived at 9:45 am since our guidebook said Spanish stores generally open at 9:30. Several were clearly boarded over—summer trade only this close to the coast—but at a few minutes past ten El Rissec's owner took pity and opened her doors.

A holiday wonderland awaited:

I could easily have bought twice as much as we did, but limited myself to essentials (Michael might disagree here), the necessary dishes plus some very fine artificial greenery to put in an empty brass pot on our mantel.

Then it was trillo-hunting time. We didn't know the proper name for the item we were searching for until we found it. Bisbal's commercial avenue is divided into two sections, ceramics first and antiques farther up the same road. We drove—after Michael performed the difficult maneuver of extracting our car from the parking spot where it had been pinned in by a van left illegally about ten inches behind us. Spain and France do have certain similarities . . . .

Our progress at the upper end of the street was carefully observed:

The first antique shop yielded up a metal canteen from the 1920s to join the tool collection hanging in our living room. [Note for future: if we decide to splurge on an 80-euro burnished metal mortar & pestle, this large warehouse, with a charming English-speaking woman in charge, has a large selection.] The second, companion store to Anticua with its beautifully restored clocks, had exactly what we were looking for. It was, in fact, the same shop where we had bought a small wood-and-flint sample piece on our previous excursion.

Here—photo of photo above the panels for sale—is a trillo in use, threshing grain.

Wikipedia has an astonishingly comprehensive entry on this ancient device. You do have to wonder who takes the time to put up such well-written, lovingly detailed descriptions for no gain or glory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threshing-board. And whoever compiled this material acknowledges his/her debt to the author of the Spanish wiki equivalent: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trillo_%28agricultura%29.

While Wikipedia shows an engraving of a trillo on a 3rd-millennium-BCE seal from Turkey, our modest acquisition is from 1880s Spain. We were delighted to be able to secure the single panel in the photo at the end of this post for under 300 euros. If we'd had the money and space, though, we would have loved to own this complete trillo, also for sale in the same shop:

On our last shopping trip to Spain, we had seen beautiful doors crafted from these threshing boards. Didn't take the time to find the same outdoor display on this jaunt, but here's a rustic version from the Wikipedia article, plus images of table and bar stolen from elsewhere on the internet. Magnificent!

Shopping over, we dropped down to the Costa Brava for the obligatory sand collection.

Then it was home for lunch and an opportunity to admire our purchases: