Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Glut of Plums? Cake!

The purple Italian prune plums are available in abundance right now, at least at the Middle Eastern groceries in my neighbourhood. Last weekend I bought a huge bag for €1.50 a kilo, which I think is incredibly well priced.

Coincidentally, the blogosphere is awash with recipes  for German yeasted plum cake (Pflaumkuchen). Who am I to resist?

I've tried several recipes, all good, although not equally successful. I've had trouble with getting the dough to rise, which I first attributed to old yeast, but have now concluded is due to using the wrong kind of flour. I only had cake flour (patent bloem, in Dutch) and it's low gluten content just doesn't work with yeast. When I used ordinary flour, success!

This cake is an amalgam of several recipes, producing a fresh, not-too-sweet cake that goes well with the morning coffee. I think you could serve it for brunch or as part of luxurious breakfast. It also freezes reasonably well.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Waldkorn Crispbread

When I was in Denmark recently with my sister and brother-in-law we stayed at a wonderful B&B (Dalsgaard B&B) on a small farm 20 minutes from Århus. The accommodation was in a separate building, with separate living room (including fireplace), and two bedrooms. There was no kitchenette or WiFi  but these inconveniences were completely compensated by the fabulous breakfasts featuring homemade bread rolls and preserves, lovely cheeses and sliced meats, and what our hostess Karin called Swedish crispbread (also homemade). These were seed-filled, nutty, crunchy and utterly satisfying.

She very generously gave me the recipe, and I made it almost as soon as we got home to Amsterdam.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

On Poached Eggs and Shakshuka

Have I ever mentioned how much I love eggs? I love eggs—poached, soft-boiled, hard-boiled, fried, in omelettes, egg salad, as accents in other salads, not to mention their essential use in baking.

I think my favourite egg dish is eggs benedict, but I always have trouble with the poaching. The egg white just drifts off and I can't get it to go around the yolk in that lovely oval nestling way that proper poached eggs should have. I have tried all kinds of techniques: creating a gentle vortex, adding vinegar in the water, precooking the egg in the shell fo 30 seconds first.

I think the biggest problem is that supermarket eggs are just not fresh enough. In Europe they believe that eggs should not be chilled, so that they are sold at room temperature, which does not help in keeping them fresh. They should read Harold McGee.

In my recent visit back home I picked up some silicon egg poachers that I hope will help me in my quest for better poached eggs. I have tried them once and they were OK, but I needed to peel the eggs out of them. Next time, I'll try a bit of oil spray.

But another variation on a poached egg is to simmer it in a sauce. So today I tried that Middle-eastern favourite, shakshuka, which are eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Charred Eggplant Soup

I have acquired new cookbooks! Both are by the London-based Israeli chef Yottam Ottolenghi, who is famous for his restaurants and catering shops in London. I've never been to one, but he's also well-known for his eclectic and original recipes, often featuring vegetables in the starring role.

So my first recipe to try was using one of my favourite vegies—eggplant. He has a number of recipes that call for burnt aubergine, which means cooking them over a gas flame until they are charred  on the outside and soft and smoky-tasting on the inside. One of them is this soup.

This recipe is a bit labour-intensive but it a delivers a rib-sticking soup with a smoky, earthy, sweet and sour flavour that is really unusual. I liked it a lot, but the immediate hit of charred eggplant flavour might not be to everyone's taste.

The recipe also calls for a type of giant couscous that is difficult to obtain. None of the stores in my neighbourhood carried it under the names provided, but I did find some nameless pasta that was shaped  a bit like little balls, so I used that, since couscous is really a form of pasta. The soup would work very well without it, but it adds that extra heft needed for a main course soup.

Charred Eggplant Soup

Adapted from Jerusalem
(I reduced the amount of oil and increased the chicken stock.
I also didn't bother skinning and seeding the tomatoes.)

5 small eggplants (about 1.3 kilos in total)
3-4 tablespoons oil
1 onion
1 tsp freshly-ground cumin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4-5 medium tomatoes (350 grams), or used canned tomatoes
4 smashed garlic cloves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
1.5 teaspoon salt
400 ml chicken stock
400 ml water
1 tsp freshly-ground pepper
100 grams pearl pasta (as I call it)
fresh dill for garnish

  1. Line 3 gas burners with tin foil to catch the juices and keep the stove-top clean. Place one eggplant on each burner and set the flame to medium or high (depending on the size of the burner). Cook for about 15 minutes, turning regularly until the outside is charred and the inside is limp and soft. The skin will burst and some juices leak out. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then scoop the flesh out or peel the charred skin off. Place the flesh into a colander, rinse to get the last charred flakes off, and allow to drain.
  2. Cut the remaining 2 eggplants into about 1.5 cm cubes.
  3. In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Add the diced eggplant, stirring thoroughly to distribute the oil over the eggplant. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the eggplant browns and turns soft. At first the eggplant will absorb the oil, but as it cooks, it will release it again. If it is not browning at this point, turn up the heat so that at least some of the cubes get some nice colour on them. If necessary, add a bit more oil.
  4. When the diced eggplant is brown and cooked, remove it from the pot and set it aside in a colander to drain, and sprinkle with some salt. Keep any remaining oil in the pot or top up to about 1 tablespoon.
  5. Now add the onion and ground cumin and sauté for 5-7 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, for another minute.
  7. Add the tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice, sugar, salt, stock, and water. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, cook the "pearl" pasta until al dente. Mine took about 10 minutes.
  9. Add the charred eggplant into the soup and purée using a hand-held blender. If the soup is too thick, add some more water or stock. Then add most of the cubed eggplant and most of the pearl pasta, reserving some of both for the garnish. Heat through for about 2 minutes and adjust the seasoning (sweet, sour, salt, pepper).
  10. Serve the hot soup in bowls garnished with the remaining diced eggplant, pearl pasta and fresh dill.
If you plan to freeze the soup, it might be worth omitting the pasta and only adding it just before serving, since pasta tends to expand and go mushy when left to sit in soup.
I think this soup would also be great with a bit of heat and might consider adding some chilli flakes the next time I make it.
If you don't have gas burners, put the eggplants under the broiler for about an hour, turning regularly. I haven't tried this; it's the author's advice.