Bitter with bits in: my ideal marmalade

IMG_2247When I was growing up marmalade meant one thing: a citrussy concoction with bits of peel in it, related to jam but somehow more complicated in flavour and less obviously sweet. It was also one of the only things my father ever cooked – it still is – and although he comes up with all sorts of variations on the theme, one or more members of the citrus family are always the star ingredients, and perfectly sliced peel an essential element. I think this is generally the case in the UK today, though the earliest origins of the name lie with a smooth Portuguese quince concoction and over centuries the word has applied itself to many different kinds of fruit jam in other European countries (for full marmalade history and lots of recipes see my friend Elizabeth Field’s wonderful work).

Of course I am so conditioned by citrus that oranges are always the first fruit that spring to mind when I read the word, and I’ve been reading it a lot recently as I continue my pursuit of Charles Fourier’s gastrosophic (or truly gastronomic) vision – and his sweet tooth. Fourier seems to love marmelades, and constantly suggests them as one of the ideal and economical foods of Harmony, especially for women and children. The Néo-Physiologie du Gout par Ordre Alphabétique (1839) confirms that in France in this period a marmelade was simply the type of jam that uses the whole of the fruit, as opposed to a jelly, made with only the juice. Its marmelade section discusses everything but citrus, and although there is a brief, all inclusive description of citrus marmelade under the citron entry, this requires passing the cooked peel through a sieve to produce a smooth preparation – sacrilege on my breakfast table!

Although I know some people chop their marmalade peel finely with a food processor, and Fourier himself was expecting an un-bitty preserve, I’m afraid I simply can’t bring myself to make you a puréed or strained marmalade, especially not while Seville oranges are in season. You can click here for a basic recipe for a very British orange marmalade, passing on as many tips from my father as I could glean. It might not be what Fourier had in mind for his Harmonians, but as far as I’m concerned it brings you as close as you can get to marmalade perfection.

Rediscovering the Mirliton – Charles Fourier’s favourite tart

 

IMG_7482When you read any of Charles Fourier’s utopian tracts you can’t help noticing what an important part sugar plays in his idea of the perfect world. He constantly refers delicious cakes, jams and sweets, and does it with such relish that it feels obvious that his future world, Harmony, was the perfect place for anyone – like him – with a very sweet tooth.

One of the cakes he mentions most often is the mirliton, and everyone who has written on Fourier’s theory of gastrosophy mentions them too, equally casually. But one day I asked myself – what exactly IS a mirliton? And where can I get one? In fact, why am I not eating one right now as an essential element in my research? I started to ask for them in bakeries all over Paris, and other towns I visited in the south, and made the not entirely original discovery that the best way to feel extremely foolish about your apparent lack of mastery of the French language is to ask a pâtissier about a cake he’s never heard of: rest assured that it’s never him, it’s you!

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It became clear that if I wanted this essential taste of Harmony in my life I had to find a recipe and make one myself. The Néo-physiologie du gout par ordre alphabétique, ou Dictionnaire général de la cuisine française ancienne et moderne (Paris: 1839) obliged, with not just one recipe, but a basic recipe and two variations. This in itself was very exciting, as one variation was for Mirlitons de Rouen and one for Mirlitons à la parisienne. If you have read about Charles Fourier’s formative years you will know that in 1789 he made his first trip to Paris, via Rouen, at the age of 18. Clearly this visit, at such a significant time in his own development and in the social and political history of France, had a major influence on the rest of his life, thought and writing. For me, it’s intriguing also to wonder if the mirliton was another significant yet somehow hidden discovery on that trip, and speculate that the lighter, puffier mirliton of the Parisian recipe only added to his enchantment with that city.

So, what are they like? I’d say, with Fourier, they are miraculous, and a true taste of paradise: fluffy, dainty, light as air, beautiful to look at, delicious to eat. Watching them through the oven door as they rise at unlikely speed to an impossible height completely explains their name – a non-edible mirliton being somewhere between a kazoo and one of those party blowers that hoots as it unfurls a long flat tongue when you blow into it. For every reason I reckon the mirliton, baked to be as light and sweet as Harmony demands it, is long overdue for a major comeback.

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RECIPE

Ingredients (for about 30)
4 eggs – 2 whole, 2 separated
120g (4 oz) icing sugar
90g (3 oz) meringues (hazelnut is very good) – crushed
½ tbsp orange flower water
pinch of salt
60g (2 oz) butter – melted
800g (1¾lb) fine puff pastry
Icing sugar and Demerara sugar for finishing

Equipment
Pastry moulds/tart tins 5cm wide and 2cm deep
Fluted pastry cutter 7cm diameter.

Method
Pre-heat oven to medium hot, 180°C-200°C / 350°F-400°F.

IMG_2372Melt the butter and allow it to cool. In a bowl mix together the two whole eggs and 2 egg yolks and stir in the icing sugar, crushed nut meringues, orange flower water and the pinch of salt. Mix in the cooled melted butter. Beat the 2 egg whites into soft peaks and fold them in to the rest of the mixture.

IMG_2366Roll out the puff pastry to a thickness of 6mm (2/8”), and cut into 30 or so pieces with a 7cm (2 6/8”) fluted pastry cutter.

IMG_2367Gently place them in lightly buttered moulds 5cm (2”) wide and 2cm (6/8”) deep.

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IMG_2375Fill the pastry cases with the mixture.

IMG_2377Sift icing sugar over them to give a light dusting over the whole surface, and sprinkle a few grains of Demerara sugar on each one.

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IMG_2379Bake in a medium to hot oven, with even bottom heat, for about 10-15 minutes. The pastry and the filling will puff up to an unlikely-seeming height – if they don’t, adjust the oven temperature and stand your filled trays on a hot metal tray or baking stone.

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Serve hot or cooled on the day of baking. They don’t really need any embellishment but if you want to plate them as a dessert they are good with some fruit coulis (raspberry or blackberry) on the side.

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For a more printable version of the recipe, look on the Recipes page.

Bread in Kazakhstan – Taba Nan baked in a dung fire

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At any market in southern Kazakhstan you will see piles of the most beautiful big round breads, called nan or non. All of them have a raised edge and some kind of decoration on the central dough, though there are many variations on the theme, and they are priced accordingly. Some are plain (taba nan, or lepeshka in Russian), others enriched with egg (salma nan); some Uzbek-influenced version have fried onion rolled into the rim or mixed into the dough, while others are strewn with sesame or nigella seeds. In a restaurant, you might be served smaller and highly decorated versions of any of these breads, damdy nan.

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Typically, the plain or seeded version is eaten at breakfast with thick sour cream or butter and fruit jam. Others accompany salads and meat dishes. Whichever variation you are served, it’s clear that these breads are closely related to the Uzbek non or patyr in form and ingredients. But one of the more interesting things about the Kazakh version is the way they are traditionally baked at home: not in an oven as we might understand it, or a clay tandoor as in Uzbekistan, but in a couple of metal dishes, put together to make a kind of mini oven for each individual bread. Presumably this entirely portable technique is tied to the nomadic roots of the Kazakhs. Using it allows anyone to make a perfect bread anywhere it’s possible to light a fire and unhook two pans from your luggage – and produce something that one might more usually asscoiate with a bakery, an oven, and settling in one place.

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Of course not many Kazakhs live this nomadic life any more, but this only makes it more interesting to find out how people make the bread today. Zubira Boranbayeva showed me how to do it first in the traditional way, on a dung fire; and then in the new way, on an electric stove, when I visited her in the village of Zhabagly in southern Kazakhstan. The different heat sources require slightly different techniques, which in turn subtly affect the flavour of the bread. It was a fascinating example of how recipes and dishes can adapt, and how the small changes and compromises needed to make a recipe work in new circumstances result in tiny but discernible changes in flavour, look and feel.

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The common factor in both versions is the dough. It’s a very wet, porridgey mixture, generally mixed in the morning and left wrapped up in a warm place for 8-9 hours. Above is the lively result we had to work with! The next step is to light the fire. We had a traditionally Kazakh fire made of dried dung, but you could use wood instead.

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The next step is to heat the pans as the fire takes. These must be heavy iron pans, safe for use over an open fire, of almost the same size. They need to fit together edge to edge, or with one very slightly smaller than the other fitting just inside the rim of the other.

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Once heated, the bottom pan should be rubbed with a piece of sheep tail fat to prevent the bread from sticking.

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Next, take a handful of dough and spread it on the bottom of the greased pan.

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Push it right out to the edges of the pan and make some marks in the surface of the dough with your knuckles.

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Cover the lower pan containing the dough with the warmed covering pan.

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Now it’s ready to go into the fire – a large set of tongs is a good idea, as the pans are already hot and will not get any cooler during the baking! Spread out your fire making a good flat bed of glowing embers for your pan to sit on. Put your pans in the middle of the fire and cover with some of the smouldering dung (or wood embers).

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Leave it to cook for about 5 minutes, then sweep everything off the lid, remove the lid, and check whether the bread is done.

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If it is golden on top, pull the pan out of the fire with your tongs and remove the bread. It should tip out easily thanks to the pre-greasing with sheep tail fat.

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The combination of direct top and bottom heat on a relatively small amount of dough makes this an incredibly quick bread to cook, and the wet dough makes for a light and springy texture. The fat, the smoke and the smell of the outdoors combine to make it an unbelievably delicious one.

Bread in Kazakhstan – Baursak

During a visit to Aksu Jabagly nature reserve in southern Kazakhstan, the wonderful Mrs Natasha Karatayeva of the Ruslan homestay showed me how she makes baursak, the delicious puffy fried bread served on special occasions all over Kazakhstan. This isn’t an everyday bread, but something for an important party, like a wedding, or even a memorial. It is said that the smell of the oil and the frying baursak floats high into the sky so that your dead loved ones can feed on the aroma and enjoy them with you. It’s a beautiful thought as you fry.

I’d had a lesson in baursak in Almaty, too, that time at Dana Altybaeva’s house (the photos in the recipe below). Dana had told me that you could vary the recipe according to whether you wanted it sweet or not, and whether you wanted the added richness of egg. Hers were unsweetened; Mrs Karatayeva’s were sweetened (yespe baursak). They both produced fabulous fluffy pillows of crisp yet soft dough, hollow in the middle, light as air, and irresistibly moreish. You can vary the recipe below as you prefer – just reduce the sugar to a pinch if you want a more savoury version. Another note – it sounds like a lot of salt, and you can reduce that too if you prefer – but it does taste good!

Recipe

Ingredients
1.5kg white flour
500ml lightly warmed milk
1 tbsp salt
3-4tbsp sugar
10g dried yeast
2 eggs
1 tbsp melted butter

Method

Mix the ingredients together in a large bowl with your hands, and once it is pulled together knead it for up to 5 minutes until it is springy and forms into a nice, slightly loose, ball. Cover and leave in a warm place for a minimum of 4 hours (this is generally a dough made in the morning for cooking in the evening).

After the rising time has passed and you are ready to cook, heat a light oil (e.g. sunflower) in a heavy pan for shallow frying – about 3cm depth of oil in a pan with high enough sides for safety.

Separate the dough into 7 or 8 medium-sized balls and one at a time roll them out to a thickness of about 5mm. Cut your rolled dough into strips of around 10cm wide, and then each strip into rectangles. Don’t worry about the curved bits at the edges – these shapes do not have to be perfect, simply fairly regular. You can use either a straight sided or fluted cutter depending on what you prefer. As you make the shapes set them aside on a towel in a single layer, and repeat the process with each of your balls of dough.

Once you are ready to cook, lay out a few of the shapes on a plate you can carry to the stove, and make sue your oil is at the right temperature. Mrs Karatayeva drops a match into her oil, and if it lights, it’s ready. You may prefer a more conventional method. like testing one small piece of dough before putting in the rest.

Put as many pieces of dough as will fit in a single layer into the hot oil and fry, turning over to ensure they are golden all over. Scoop out, drain on paper briefly, and serve.

There is apparently another version, the damalak baursak, richer and a bit heavier:  curds are added to the dough, and the breads are boiled before they are fried. I’d love to hear more about that one if anyone has had one or even cooked it.

For a visual step-by-step, here is the complete cycle demonstrated by Mrs Karatayeva:

Cured egg yolk: final chapter, first round

IMG_2313The experiment is at an end, and judged on looks alone it is a triumph – those grated golden curls couldn’t be more lovely.

But on flavour, we have a hung jury. The effect of these flecks of proteinous gorgeousness on pasta or in a salad is very good indeed, I just wish it was more umami, a lot less sweet. In my research I found that people who tweaked the traditional 50/50 advice tended to up the amount of sugar. Not me. Next time I’ll try it with no sugar at all and see how much better that is. And maybe a control specimen somewhere in between, say at 75/25.

So, perhaps the experiment isn’t at an end after all. There’s always a spare yolk around somewhere – and it has to be said there is something truly fabulous about being able to grate an ingredient I have always thought of as a liquid over my food, even if it is a tiny bit sweeter than I’d like. It’s definitely my new store cupboard staple.

For a full summary of the process, look at my recipe page for Cured Egg Yolk.

Cured egg yolk - finished - split

Crispy lichens and cured egg yolks – the forbidden experiment?

IMG_3162A few weeks ago I was thwarted in my plan to make Magnus Nilsson’s crispy lichen dish by my lack of a cured egg yolk. This weekend, it’s all come together: the egg yolks have had about a month to mature, and a walk on the North Downs produced a small bagful of beautiful grey-green fallen lichens. With the help of a fabulous leaflet from the British Lichen Society I identified my collection – mostly oakmoss (Evernia prunastri), and Flavoparnelia caperata, with a tiny bit of Ramalina farinacea – and then frightened myself out of eating most of it by researching each one in detail. But in the end, I took my courage in both hands and decided to go for it with the oakmoss. If I dare to eat Amanita muscaria after boiling in copious amounts of fresh water, as advised by David Arora and William Rubel (see this article), surely I could deal with a tiny portion of this lichen?

I’m glad I did. Not only did I live to tell the tale, but as it cooked the lichen was fragrant, and when it was served it was delicious. Of course, you could say that almost anything that has been expertly deep fried, sprinkled with extreme umami flavour and dipped in lightly garlicky sour cream simply has to be good. I would be forced to agree with you. This treatment would work brilliantly with herb leaves or cabbage (à la Chinese restaurant seaweed substitute) – or even seaweed. I’m not sure I’ll feel the need to whip up a round of lichen crisps on a regular basis. But I have to admit that it was just a little bit of a thrill to try something completely new.

Recipe

Crispy lichens seasoned with dried egg yolks and very lightly cold smoked fish, lightly soured garlic cream
adapted from Fäviken, by Magnus Nilsson, p. 202.

IMPORTANT notes on ingredients – and a warning
I do not have access to either of the lichens recommended in the recipe, and so substituted a lichen commonly found in my region: oakmoss, Evernia prunastri. PLEASE exercise extreme caution when consuming wild foods that you have collected – and remember that you do so entirely at your own risk. Most lichens contain varying amounts of indigestible polysaccharides and lichenic acids which may be toxic in large quantities, so conduct very, very careful research to identify and decide on the safety of any you collect (really, this goes for all foraged foods). An excellent site from the University of Victoria contains really good descriptive detail on human uses of lichens: click here to visit it. I found it extremely helpful. But if in any doubt, it is always best to err on the side of caution and say no.

Ingredients (for 6)
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Oil for deep frying
6 pieces of reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangiferina, rinsed and cleaned
6 pieces Icelandic moss, (Iceland cetraria lichen) Cetraria islandia, rinsed and cleaned
50g lightly soured cream
pinch grated garlic
dried trout, to serve (bottarga* is a good substitute)
cured egg yolks, to serve

Method
IMG_3226Heat two large pans of water to a boil. Heat the oil ready for deep frying in another pan.

While the oil is heating, boil the lichens for 5 minutes in the first pan, drain quickly , and immediately continue boiling for 5 more minutes in the second pan of fresh, boiling water. (Nilsson recommends steaming the lichens for 10 minutes; my lichen were a different kind to those he specified so I was exercising extreme caution)

When the boiling time is up, drain quickly and use tongs to immediately drop them into the hot oil – be careful, they will spit. As soon as they stop bubbling, remove from the oil and drain on paper towels, changing the paper frequently to soak up as much oil as possible.

Whip the cream to soft peaks and season very lightly with the garlic. Put on in a small dish at room temperature ready to serve.

Place the lichens on a hot stone, 2 per person, seasoning one with grated dried fish, and the other with grated cured egg yolk.

Serve with the cream, dipping each lichen ‘crisp’ or ‘chip’ in the cream before eating.

*Bottarga is the pressed and salt-cured roe of grey mullet or tuna.

How many grains make a good porridge?

IMG_2139I’m a major fan of porridge as my winter breakfast – but I now realise how limited my porridge horizon has been. Like any well brought up girl from Edinburgh, I’d only really considered oats as the proper content of my breakfast bowl. Needless to say, Magnus Nilsson (whose Fäviken cookbook I am currently obsessed with) has different ideas. No such thing as a single-grain porridge for him! Oats play a part in his mix, but he also gives a starring role to barley, and includes several different seeds. This makes for a really interesting mouthfeel. There’s all the silkiness of your usual oatmeal made even gooier with crushed rye, and then some texture is re-introduced with the subtle crunch of sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

I find it really hard to change my morning habits. It’s hard enough to get up, make the coffee and get anything at all into a bowl or onto a plate. But this mix is definitely worth the effort, and the great thing is that all the hard work is done well in advance, at a time of day more conducive to such things. The end result is quite delicious – and with all those seeds it just has to be really, really good for you too.

Johnny’s porridge
from Magnus Nilsson’s recipe in Fäviken, p183

Ingredients
IMG_21011 part unprocessed oats (I used oat groats)
1 part unprocessed barley (I doubled up the pot barley)
1 part whole barley (pot barley)
1 part crushed rye (I ground it coarsely in a handmill)
1 part rolled oats (oat flakes or oatmeal)
1 part whole linseeds
1 part sunflower seeds
1 part pumpkin seeds
salt

Method
IMG_2120Decide how much you want to make and choose the size of your part-measure accordingly. You don’t need to make enough to last a lifetime all in one go. I used a half-cup measure and made enough for  about 8 servings. Mix all of the ingredients together and store in an airtight container.

IMG_2132When you want porridge, soak 1 part of the mixture with 2 parts water for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight. The soaking is important as it considerably reduces the cooking time as well as improving the texture. I generally use half or a third of a cup of dry porridge per serving, depending on how hungry I think I’ll be.

IMG_2151When you are ready to eat, bring to a boil and bubble gently with a pinch of salt for about 5 minutes until cooked. Eat immediately. It’s really good on its own or, if you like it sweet, served with a spoonful of honey or stewed fruit.